United States Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield visited the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens, where she spoke to about 20 students from the Eagle Academy and Queens Preparatory Academy on Saturday, Oct. 29, inspiring them to become the next generation of leaders in foreign and public service.
The event was hosted by the Greater Queens Chapter of the Links Inc. (GQL), which chooses a local high school every two years to participate in Model United Nations, an educational simulation of the intergovernmental organization. In the past 10 years, Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens, Queens Preparatory Academy, Pathways College and Cambria Heights Academy for New Literacies have taken part in the program, which was on hold for the past two years due to COVID-19.
After the closed event with the students, school officials and community representatives, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, who was nominated by President Biden and sworn into office on Feb. 24, 2021, sat down with The Queens Courier for an exclusive interview to discuss the importance of young people getting involved in public service.
One of the ambassador’s priorities is encouraging students to become active and engaged global citizens. Thomas-Greenfield believes that it is vital for young people in the United States to learn about the United Nations.
“There is a tendency to see the United Nations as an organization that is for other people,” the career diplomat who served 35 years in the U.S. Foreign Service said. “And Americans need to know the United Nations right here in New York City is here for all people everywhere in the world. And have our young people learn what the U.N. is about, I think it’s important. But also to have them think about careers in the United Nations and diplomacy, I think it’s important.”
Thomas-Greenfield said that Model U.N. teaches young people how to write and communicate. She admitted that in the beginning, she wasn’t comfortable giving speeches because she didn’t learn public speaking in high school. Now she gives a speech a day, sometimes even three to four speeches a day.
“I had to learn on the job. And I do feel extraordinarily competent at giving speeches now,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “And I think these young people will be able to just walk in and do it.”
Her career in foreign service has taken Thomas-Greenfield to places like Liberia, where she served as an ambassador from 2008-2012, and postings in Switzerland, Pakistan, Kenya, The Gambia, Nigeria and Jamaica.
Thomas-Greenfield got her “appetite” for Foreign Service when she lived in Liberia with her husband, Lafayette Greenfield, during his tenure in the Foreign Service.
He was her first inspiration to become a public servant. Thomas-Greenfield worked as a staff assistant for Ambassador Edward J. Perkins, who became her mentor along with the late Madeleine Albright, the first woman Secretary of State, who Thomas-Greenfield described as “funny, witty and smart” and a “great inspiration.”
“She was a grandmother, and she was proud of being a grandmother,” Thomas-Greenfield said of Albright, who had given her the courage to be herself. “She raised daughters, and she was proud of being a mother. But at the same time, she was extraordinarily capable as our top diplomat at the United Nations and then even bigger as the Secretary of State.”
When asked what advice the ambassador had for young women entering public service, she said, “Go for it! Go for every possibility out there. Don’t limit yourself.”
Thomas-Greenfield admitted that she limited herself early in her career because she believed that, as a mother of two young children, she also couldn’t have a successful and thriving career.
“It was Ambassador Perkins who said to me, ‘You can do this, and I want you to take on this job.’ And I was able to do it,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “And I have two extraordinary adult kids right now.”
Thomas-Greenfield has many memorable moments, but the most unforgettable was when she met President Nelson Mandela in Pakistan. Pakistani officials thought she was with the South African delegation and put her in the front seat while her embassy colleagues were sitting in the rafters of a large auditorium.
“He comes down, and he shakes all of our hands. And he said to me, ‘Thank you for your service,'” Thomas-Greenfield recalled. “I think he thought he was thanking me for working with the South African government, but I accepted it. And I still fill his hands.”
Dr. Christopher Smith, principal of the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens, which has an impressive graduation rate of 97%, was excited to bring Model U.N. back to his school for the second time.
The Model U.N. curriculum follows the actual U.N. curriculum. Students are assigned a country and have to devise solutions to the country’s problem, which involves a good amount of research.
“The skills that they learn, you know, the teamwork and the problem solving and critical thinking regardless of the subject, yeah, and the research is something that’s going to be beneficial for life,” Dr. Smith said. “So they’re real transferable skills.”
Danielle Yucht, who teaches AP seminar and AP U.S. history at Queens Preparatory Academy, pointed out that there has been a strong push to teach science and math, leading students to believe that the only lucrative professions are in those fields.
“One of the things that Model U.N. can bring is the idea that there’s a whole other side of the world that doesn’t involve science,” Yucht said. “There’s more out there than science and math, and I’m not discounting it, but there’s been such a focus on the past 20 years, especially for the girls, that they don’t realize what’s out there waiting for them.”
The students were quite impressed with Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield’s confidence and poise and the advice she’d given them.
One piece of advice stuck with Aliyah Maliq, a student at Queens Prep.
“You should be open to going through other doors even though you have a goal that you’re looking forward to,” Maliq said.
Samantha Sanchez said, “For me as a young girl, what stood out to me the most was when she said that she felt she had to be better than her male colleagues in order to be an ambassador.”
The students also shared that Thomas-Greenfield had encouraged them to explore different fields.
Nicholas Holm, who has plans to go into a computer science field, said, “She has inspired me that I shouldn’t be so straightforward, and maybe I want to deviate from that path onto something else.”
For 17-year-old Tyron Simmons, the ambassador of Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens, public service comes in all shapes and forms, and he wants to become an elementary school teacher.
“She inspired me to keep going,” Simmons said. “I believe that public service is being readily available and being able to provide for your community and other communities and being an advocate. And so I do believe that the field I’m going into would be dignified as public service.”