The American career ambassador in Egypt will travel to Webster from Cairo May 11 to be the 93rd keynote commencement speaker at the 2012 graduation ceremony. Anne W. Patterson, who has served as ambassador for seven months, has a background with the United Nations and served as ambassador in El Salvador, Colombia and Pakistan.
“With all the problems the U.S. has…with perceptions, particularly in the Islamic world, I wanted to talk briefly about how ultimately unique the United States is,” Patterson said. “As a young audience of young graduates go forward, it’s important to understand that… With all our problems and all our rigidities and issues like income and mobility, it is still the one place in the world that is essentially where no one cares where you come from. I’ve been all around the world and, believe me, that is unique.”
Originally hailing from Fort Smith, Ark., Patterson has worked in foreign services for 39 years. As ambassador, Patterson works to prevent conflict and protect American commercial interests.
Patterson was chosen as the keynote commencement speaker through a nomination process conducted by members of the board of trustees. Nominations were taken based on the individuals’ backgrounds in cross-cultural connections, sustainability and technology.
“The process is based on the clearly established criteria,” Provost Julian Schuster said. “The criteria takes into account how well the entire process is aligned with the mission and vision, and the values of this institution. The work that the candidates have done so far needs to be aligned with the values of Webster University.”
President Elizabeth Stroble reached out to Patterson in late January after the board of trustees selected Patterson as a nominee. Stroble said Patterson stood out because of her distinguished career in foreign service. Patterson’s hometown is also home to a Webster campus, which was a bonus for Stroble.
“I was very pleased,” Patterson said. “I’ve been to a number of commencement addresses over the years and some are great, and some are, shall we say, a little flat. It’s exciting to have the opportunity… I was very impressed by Webster’s approach to a very broad-based student body and their focus on internationalism, and trying to encourage students to be good global citizens.”
As an Arkansas native who has since traveled the world, Patterson wants to express to students the importance of branching out. She said the U.S. has a different standing in the world today than when she started working in the field.
“Americans need more international exposure,” Patterson said. “I say that as somebody from Fort Smith, Ark., it’s just a very different world than it was 40 years ago. A huge advantage we have is the English language, but it’s made us a little lazy. If anything, we’re less inclined to study foreign language than we were 30 or 40 years ago.”
With her experience in international relations, Stroble and Schuster said Patterson is a good representation of the mission of Webster University. When former Senator Christopher “Kit” Bond spoke at the 2011 commencement, some Webster students turned their back on the speaker because they felt he did not accurately represent the student body. Stroble said this year, the board of trustees was active in seeking nominations from students and developed a clearer set of criteria for nominees.
“The selection of the ambassador as our commencement speaker reflects our commitment to global, academic and operational excellence,” Schuster said. “Having someone who has devoted her life to foreign service in several countries around the world is something which is a very close, if not a perfect, match.”
Along with Patterson, alumna Mary Ann Wyrsch and Joplin, Mo., mayor Mike Woolston will speak at commencement. Wyrsch, who has worked with the United Nations and in international relations, will welcome graduates into the alumni association. Woolston will provide words of inspiration. All three speakers will receive honorary doctorate degrees to recognize accomplishments in their respective fields.
Patterson has spoken at Stanford University and other colleges around the Washington, D.C., area, in addition to the University of Arkansas. She said she speaks to college audiences less than she would like and usually addresses older graduate students or professor seminars.
“I’m really looking forward to talking to a young and diverse audience,” Patterson said of her speech at Webster. “There are huge opportunities, fascinating opportunities, for graduates to explore.”