May 23, 2024

Good afternoon, everyone, and welcome to this celebration of the Harvard Kennedy School Class of 2024. I am delighted to be together with you all on this stormy but joyous occasion. I will keep my remarks brief to keep our attention focused where it belongs—on recognizing these graduates and their families and friends.

Indeed, with the conferring of degrees earlier, the members of the Kennedy School class of 2024 are officially Harvard graduates. Congratulations! You have achieved so much during your time here, in your academic pursuits and your other activities, and I hope you are proud of what you have done.

I am especially impressed by how you have persevered during this past difficult year. The year has brought horrific suffering and tragedy to many people in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. Because so many members of the Kennedy School community have families and friends around the world, and because everyone here is so engaged with the world, the humanitarian crises we watch are part of our lives too.

You have responded this year with both your heads and your hearts—eager to learn more to strengthen your understanding and intent on helping people in peril thousands of miles away and comforting people who are grieving here. Thank you for all of that.

In addition to congratulating our graduates, I want to congratulate the graduates’ families and friends—the parents, siblings, grandparents, spouses, partners, children, and all the loved ones who have supported today’s graduates and helped make today possible. Your guidance and encouragement have mattered so much in helping these graduates find their way to the Kennedy School and thrive here. I hope you are proud of your contributions to this special occasion, and I am delighted that you are with us today. Will the members of the class of 2024 please rise and join me in thanking your families and friends?

HKS Dean Douglas Elmendorf delivering the 2024 graduation remarks. He is wearing regalia and standing at a podium in front of a crimson backdrop.

The video we just watched ended with U.S. president John F. Kennedy’s famous call in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” We use the phrase “ask what you can do” a lot at the Kennedy School—in videos, on banners, in published documents, and more. I don’t generally use the phrase in my remarks at graduations, but since I will be stepping down as dean next month, today is my last chance, and I can’t resist.

I am drawn to the expression “ask what you can do” because it gives each of us both a responsibility and an opportunity. I was pleased to hear yesterday in Ambassador Nick Burns’s speech that his perspectives on responsibility and opportunity seem very close to what I had written for these remarks.

The responsibility was John Kennedy’s focus. He recognized that a country is not fundamentally a place on a map or a legal entity, but instead a group of people. A country does not do anything apart from what the people of the country do. So, when you ask what your country can do for you, you are really asking what other people can do for you.

Sometimes that is appropriate, because we all depend on others and need to lean on others during our lives. But we also have a responsibility to ask what we can do for others, so that they can sometimes depend on us and lean on us. That is what John Kennedy was talking about.

And at the Kennedy School, we don’t mean just others in your country, as Kennedy naturally put it for a presidential inauguration. We also mean others in your neighborhood, your city, and our shared global society, because neighborhoods and cities and our global society also are not just places on a map or legal entities, they too are the people who live in them.

I hope that John Kennedy’s call to ask what you can do is felt especially strongly by graduates of the Kennedy School. Each of you graduating today has spent time on this campus surrounded by people who share a commitment to making public policy and leadership better, and who are studying, teaching, learning, and sharing the skills and knowledge for doing so. Now, you need to take the skills and knowledge you have gained here and put them to use. Put them to use in your own ways—in government, civil society, or the private sector; in your careers or your lives outside your careers; on causes you care about; in different aspects of the world that most interest you. But do something.

I want to emphasize also that the phrase is “ask what you can do”—not what you can say, not what superiority you can assert, not what clever takedown might get the most likes on social media—but what you can do. Improving public policy and leadership requires hard work and lots of it. In my years in the U.S. government, I saw no overnight triumphs and no accomplishments through rhetoric alone. When I saw progress in addressing public needs, and I did, it came incrementally from people who had the patience and persistence to labor long and hard and often out of the spotlight. That is what John Kennedy’s call should mean to you.

But I do not want to focus only on the responsibility identified by John Kennedy, I also want to highlight the opportunity—as Ambassador Burns did yesterday himself. When Kennedy called on people to “ask what you can do,” he was reminding everyone that what we do matters. Each of us can make a positive difference in other people’s lives. Each of us can help others and empower others to have better lives. Each of us has agency to influence what happens around us. That is the most wonderful opportunity anyone could hope for, and we should each seize it.

Sometimes the opportunity to help others arises at scale, and one can lead a government, develop a policy, redirect a nonprofit organization, or shape global events. Much more often, though, and even in the most successful careers, the opportunity to help others arises in a less expansive way, with a chance to help a small number of people or maybe one person. When that happens, seize the opportunity to make a difference for that person.

To make the right sort of difference, you will need to be both principled and effective—principled in living up to your values, and effective in using your skills and knowledge to advance those values. Graduates of the Kennedy School are especially prepared to do this. Unfortunately, even principled and effective public leaders do not prevail every day, and you will surely face setbacks small and large. But if you keep seizing the opportunities you have, you will help to move the world toward greater peace, prosperity, fairness, and sustainability for all.

To the class of 2024, you are ending your time as students of Harvard Kennedy School, but you will always be part of the School as alumni. Tens of thousands of Kennedy School alumni around the world are making a positive difference in their careers and their lives. They are accepting the important responsibility and seizing the wonderful opportunity to ask what they can do. Go join them. Travel safe and stay in touch. Congratulations!