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Graduation address: Dr Fiona Hill

Honorary graduand and alumna of the University, Dr Fiona Hill, has recorded a special message for the Class of 2020 virtual degree conferrals. 

Dr Fiona Hill is a Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy in the Center on the United States and Europe at The Brookings Institution and former US National Security Council official who testified at Donald Trump’s Congressional impeachment hearings in Washington DC.


Congratulations to the St Andrews Class of 2020! It’s a great honour to be able to join you virtually.

We are living through a difficult time in our history that will require all of us to step up and to put our skills to the test. Education is not just about acquiring information, but doing something with it. You are graduating from one of the world’s oldest and greatest universities. At many junctures in St Andrews’ storied 600 years there have been times like this, when the world needs those with a St Andrews education to set things to rights.

The origins of St Andrews’ motto – ‘Ever to Excel’ – are especially fitting when we are afflicted by pandemic disease, social strife and political turmoil. It is, of course, a quotation from Homer’s Iliad, the epic poem about a time of troubles in Ancient Greece. Homer wrote of the ultimate weakness of Achilles’ heel, the deception of the Trojan horse, and the great cities torn apart by conflict. But in the middle of the battles was a young warrior, Glaucus, sent to Troy with instructions “ever to excel”, to do better than others and to bring glory to his ancestors.

You will now be sent out by St Andrews with the same instructions and the imperative to try to do even better than those who have gone before you.

For me, studying at St Andrews was exhilarating. It was completely transformational. It put me on my life’s path, which has brought me back full circle to you today. St Andrews gave me the opportunity for personal contemplation and growth, wonderful professors and life-long friends. It steeped me in history, taught me Russian, sent me off on a fateful year of study abroad in Moscow in 1987, and then helped me gain a scholarship to Harvard University in 1989. Armed and fortified by my St Andrews degree in Russian and modern history, I established myself as a historian and national security expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union. I became a US citizen and served in the US Government under three different presidents, George W Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

St Andrews also rooted me in a rich network of alumni, which you can now tap into. At every point in my St Andrews’ career I have been helped by this group. At one point I almost changed course entirely. I feared I had made a mistake: I worried that I could never have gotten a job studying Russian and history. The St Andrews career service put me in touch with an alumnus, George Robertson. At the time he was an MP for Hamilton South, with an interest in defence and security issues. This was long before email, so I wrote Mr Robertson a letter. He replied in very encouraging terms, and he told me to persevere. I did. So did he: George Robertson ever excelled and blazed new trails. He went on to become the British Secretary of Defence and NATO Secretary-General. When he was at NATO, the career path that he had told me to stay on brought me back into contact with him and I was able to thank him in person for his assistance. Today I count Lord Robertson as a friend, and I still turn to him for advice.

In my various capacities in the US Government, the St Andrews network has been at the forefront. I have worked with British Intelligence Chief Alex Younger and British National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill, who were both just ahead of me at St Andrews, as well as former Defence Minister Michael Fallon and former Ambassador to Russia Anne Pringle. There are many others. Indeed, St Andrews connections are everywhere, in the UK, in the United States, all over Europe, and across the world. These are now your connections. Be sure to make the most of them. I know that they will make a difference in your career, as they have in mine.

Perhaps my most surprising encounter with a fellow St Andrean was on 21 November 2019. I was called to give public testimony to the US Congress as one of the two final fact witnesses in the US Congressional hearings that preceded the January 2020 US Senate impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. In that moment that put me in the global spotlight, I had a fellow St Andrean right next to me. I discovered in real time from his opening statement that the other witness, David Holmes, from the US Embassy in Kiev, was a St Andrews graduate. Here I was with another alumnus in a most unexpected setting almost exactly 30 years after I graduated from St Andrews.

Today, you and your fellow graduates are also in an unexpected setting. You’re not on the beautiful St Andrews campus with your family and friends. Sadly, there will be no celebratory pier walk, stroll along the West Sands, or last tour of the Castle and the Cathedral ruins. One day you will be back again to do this, but until then you will have to figure out how best to go forward and ever excel in creative ways.

At some point, 2020 and the years beyond will be part of history. One or more of you, like Homer, may immortalise this troubled time in an epic poem, or you may analyse and describe the contours of its problems in a scholarly work. When I was in St Andrews and walking through its cobbled streets and alleyways I always thought of those who had trod before. I hope to live up to their achievements in some small way. Given the global pandemic, climate change and the impending environmental disaster, current trends in technology, the rise of artificial intelligence, and the multiple shocks produced by Covid-19, further crises lie ahead. There will be a constant call to action. There will be other pandemics, and one of you graduating today could be the next Edward Jenner, the pioneer of the world’s first vaccine to combat smallpox. You will bring us new treatments for disease. There will be risks to calculate and information to process. One of you could be a modern John Napier, who gave us the logarithm and the decimal point. You will provide us with new formulas for assessing the ever-growing mass of data.

We will need fresh political thinking to facilitate all the breakthroughs that were necessary to meet these challenging times. Many of you can follow in the footsteps of James Wilson. As Principal Sally Mapstone recently reminded an American audience, James Wilson put ‘We the People’ into the US Declaration of Independence. We need more ‘We the People’ and more St Andrews graduates at the centre of action – like Glaucus – to fight the battles that will make the world a better and a safer place.

Well whatever you do, whatever you excel in, keep the memory of St Andrews’ cobbled streets under your feet and your head held high. You’re a proud St Andrews graduate, welcome to the network of a glorious and unique university. I am honoured to be one of your number and I stand ready to help you at any time as so many St Andreans have helped me.

Congratulations to you and your family and friends, on all of your wonderful accomplishments and the successes that lie ahead of you.

Well done, Class of 2020!

Dr Fiona Hill
Senior Fellow at the Center for the United States and Europe Foreign Policy Program, The Brookings Institution.