Posted by: Date: May 22, 2008 In: ,

Barr reflects on her PLU education, work overseas

Career diplomat Joyce Barr ’76 spoke to the Class of 2008 and their families during Spring Commencement on May 25 at the Tacoma Dome. The following is the text of her speech:

Chair Gomulkiewicz, President Anderson, Provost Killen, Graduates, Families and Friends.


Good afternoon everyone! It is an honor and a privilege to share this special occasion with you today. When Dr. Anderson asked me to be PLU’s commencement speaker I was surprised and happy. Thinking back to my own PLU commencement many years ago, I suspect that some of our graduates may not recall my remarks; but I hope they do remember the pride and respect we all feel for their outstanding accomplishments. Graduates, please join me in a standing ovation to your family and friends for all of the love and support they have provided to help you get here today.

Now, I would like to take a few minutes to share my thoughts on how the PLU experience affected my life. I will also use this opportunity to try and recruit some of you for careers at the State Department and to describe some of the international issues that structure my work day.

Finally, no commencement speech would be complete without the ubiquitous and often ignored advice about life and while I do plan to take my turn at this, I promise to keep it short.

Tacoma Upbringing and PLU Education

I was born and raised in Tacoma, Washington. We lived in the Hilltop area and later moved to the East side where I graduated from Lincoln High School. My life was shaped by the love of my family, too little money and the social upheaval of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War.

I went to work after high school but eventually decided that I wanted to go to college. However, I could not pay very much for tuition so I started taking classes at community colleges. PLU was the first university to offer me a loan, and that became one of the deciding factors in attending PLU. While our paths to PLU are varied, our shared experience here is what counts.

My biggest challenge during this period was prioritizing my time. I’ve always hated homework, but found that I had to put in quite a bit of study time in order to maintain respectable grades. At the same time, I worked between 20 and 30 hours per week at a series of low paying part time jobs to cover my living expenses. Although I received a lot of moral support from family and friends, at times I became discouraged and wanted to quit.

However, every time it looked like I was going to fall overboard, someone would reach out and catch me and often times it would be a PLU faculty member. In addition, the former financial aid administrator, Patricia Hill played a unique role. I recall sailing into the financial aid office on more than one occasion, full of righteous indignation as I explained exactly why I was leaving. She would patiently listen and then quietly point out that if I left before graduation, I would have to immediately start repaying the student loans. On the other hand, if I completed my degree it would be almost a year before I would start making payments. Since I never once had a well paying job lined up during these episodes, her argument was most compelling. This was one very practical aspect of college that helped to keep me going.

Benefits of a PLU Education

The benefits of a PLU education are many but there are two, in my view, that stand above the rest. One is the liberal arts education which helped me to develop the intellectual capacity to think broadly when making important decisions. To be specific, I learned to keep my mind open to a number of possibilities when solving problems, to look in all directions for new ideas and to consider the wisdom of multiple disciplines.

Things in life don’t always happen according to plan, but learning that there are many ways to approach an obstacle allowed me to take advantage of opportunities so I could get where I wanted to go. This helped me to become successful in my career and meet very interesting people along the way.

The other major benefit of attending PLU was the chance to work with outstanding administrators, faculty and staff. At this institution my hopes were encouraged and my achievements recognized. The support I received enabled me to make the best of my education and probably sparked my interest in the public sector where I have spent most of my professional career. A PLU education is more than the best that money can buy; it is also the best that people can give.

The Foreign Service: Excitement & Enlightenment

Since my graduation from PLU, I have spent most of my career working for the Department of State as a Foreign Service Officer. It has been exciting, enlightening and at times enormously difficult but I have found it to be not only extremely satisfying but a lot of fun! The State Department is looking for intelligent, well educated, and highly motivated people like you to promote and protect American interests abroad.

The U.S. maintains nearly 260 embassies, consulates and missions to international organizations around the world. Surely, there is some place overseas that you have always wanted to visit and experience. One way to get there is by becoming a Foreign Service Officer; you will have the opportunity to experience other cultures while living and working in other countries.

We also have professional career tracks in the civil service for those who prefer to live in the U.S. Either way, once the excitement of this day is over, please indulge me by going online and taking a look at the careers section of the State Department website We need your fresh perspective, come join us!

I have been in the Foreign Service for almost 29 years. I had overseas assignments in Sweden, Hungary, Kenya, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Malaysia. During my last overseas assignment in Namibia, I had the honor of representing this country as the U.S. Ambassador.

I had a number of very interesting positions in the United States as well. I was a Recruitment Officer, worked on Human Rights issues, with International Organizations, and I spent one year on Capitol Hill working first for a Senator and then for a Congressman.

I also spent an academic year at Harvard University and another at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington D.C. I am currently stationed in Washington DC working for the second time in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs.

The “Asian Century” and China’s Rise

I think this assignment is very exciting. Many believe that the 21st century will be the Asian century. No other part of the globe holds greater potential benefits and challenges for the United States. Asia holds one-third of the world’s population; generates one-quarter of the world’s Gross Domestic Product, produces $759 billion per year in two-way trade, and buys 27% of U.S. exports.

In just about every regard – geopolitically, militarily, diplomatically, and economically this part of the world is vital to the national security interests of the United States.

The region includes China, which is rapidly assuming prominence on the global stage. Rare are the days that go by without at least one news story on China. Given PLU’s Chinese language studies, its China summer Service Learning program, as well as other international programs sponsored by the Wang center, I thought I would devote a few minutes to this most fascinating country.

For the past 20 years, China’s GDP has grown by an average of 9.0% per year. It is also the third largest trading nation in the world and the United States’ second largest trading partner. Yet it is also a country of deep contrasts. Although China is now the world’s 4th largest economy, its per capita GDP ranks only 130th because of its massive population of over 1.3 billion people.

China copes with massive internal migration and labor imbalances; it faces a large labor surplus even though labor shortages still exist in certain Chinese market segments. Some 150 million people have migrated from China’s rural areas to the cities – the largest internal migration in history. China faces enormous long-term development challenges, including the need to invest more in public health, environmental protection, and education, as well as the need to secure adequate, reliable access to natural resources and energy.

Much more than an economic powerhouse, it is also emerging as a political player with high potential to contribute to regional and global stability. The U.S. would like for China to assume a responsible leadership role equal to its growing stature. One of our most important, and complex, the U.S. – China relationship is strong.

Obviously I have enjoyed my profession. I urge you to consider a Foreign Affairs career. If you see yourself as a life-long learner, enjoy engaging with people and can cope effectively with rapid change, this is the job for you! Computers and cell phones have made the world much smaller making it impossible to ignore the plight of our neighbors. Therefore we need you, our future leaders, to lend your commitment and intellect and passion to help us understand and appreciate all this new world has to offer.

A Final Word: Only Fools Rush In

Finally, a last word for those of you, like me, who have been known at times to dash in and take charge of a situation, despite having little or no knowledge of what is really going on. In my first job after graduation, at Travelers Insurance Company, I had an unfortunate tendency to gravitate toward this method of interaction.

It was a very costly way to do business with others, it takes a while before people will trust you again and I suspect that while they may forgive, they don’t forget.

So the next time you feel the blood rushing to your head as you launch yourself (uninvited) to render assistance or advice: try to take a minute to recall the words of noted writer, philosopher and historian Will Durant: “One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”

Thank You!

Joyce Barr ’76

Keynote speaker

Spring Commencement 2008

Joyce Barr is currently the executive director of East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. She previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Namibia from 2004 to 2007. Since joining the Foreign Service in 1979, Barr has served in posts around the world, in Europe, Africa, Asia and the United States.

Barr graduated magna cum laude from PLU with a Bachelor of Business Administration. She earned two master’s degrees from Harvard University and the National Defense University, and speaks Swedish and Russian. At the 2008 Spring Commencement, she received an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters.