Former U.S. Ambassador Bisa Williams ’72 will deliver the keynote address to graduates at Northfield Mount Hermon’s 140th commencement ceremony on May 21.
“I am thrilled that Bisa Williams has agreed to return to campus as the Class of 2023 commencement speaker,” Head of School Brian Hargrove said. “Her amazing career in diplomacy has had a direct impact on improving many people’s lives all over the world. Her work and life exemplify the mission and values of Northfield Mount Hermon.”
Williams spent more than 30 years as a foreign service officer for the U.S. Department of State before retiring in 2015.
In 2010, she was appointed by President Barack Obama as ambassador to Niger, where she served for three years. In 2009, as acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, she led the U.S. delegation to talks in Havana, breaking a seven-year hiatus in high-level direct discussions. Her accomplishments were recognized in the book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, by William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh.
“In many ways, Northfield Mount Hermon was more formative for me than even my college experience,” Williams said. “There’s something really special about the NMH ethos that Dwight Moody instilled — that we have a purpose, that building community is important, and that we all really are brethren. And, of course, it was high school — there was a lot at NMH that was just plain fun.
“Yes, we’re here for a purpose, and we are building our best selves to manifest that purpose,” she added. “And we had the freedom to pursue, discover, and explore that purpose. There’s passion in that, and people catch that passion.”
Williams’ time at NMH was influenced by the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, as well as by the advent of coeducation at NMH. She is grateful that the school provided an environment in which Black students were listened to and supported and that the school allowed for peaceful protests against the war on campus.
“There was an open acknowledgement that the country and the world were in a period of change,” she said. “There was a lot of exploration of ideas, but at the same time there was this protective, familial setting that guarded our innocence as long as possible.”
Williams ties her foreign service career, which has taken her all over the world, back to “the NMH ethos.”
“Part of it is curiosity, part of it is authenticity, and part of it is just this sense of what is right and what is wrong,” she said. “I come across as credible and authentic, and I have a natural passion for things that I really believe in. That comes through and reinforces my credibility.”
For the last two years, Williams has led an effort of The Carter Center — a nongovernmental, nonprofit organization founded in 1982 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter — serving as an independent observer of implementation of the peace agreement in Mali.
She is a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson School of Global Affairs, where she teaches courses in peace-building and in policy changes in the Sahel region of Africa. She is also managing director of Williams Strategy Advisors, a problem-solving, business and foreign affairs advisory consulting firm that she co-founded.
During her foreign service career, Williams also served tours in the Republic of Guinea, Panama, Mauritius, France, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in New York, and Washington, D.C., including two years at the White House National Security Council.
Following her time as ambassador, she served as deputy assistant secretary of state in the Bureau of African Affairs, supporting U.S. economic policy goals in sub-Saharan Africa and bilateral policy in the West Africa region.
Williams, who speaks French, Spanish, and Portuguese, said her love of and aptitude for languages was strengthened during her time at NMH. She scored high on the language test — which she says is the same aptitude exam given in the foreign service — and was able to take both French and Spanish early on. “I was really happy about that,” she said.
Williams is the recipient of numerous Superior and Meritorious Honor Awards from the U.S. Department of State. She holds a master’s degree in national security strategy from the National War College of the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. She also has a master’s in comparative literature from the University of California, Los Angeles. She received a bachelor of arts cum laude from Yale University.
Williams said she was honored to be chosen by the Class of 2023 to be their Commencement speaker and wants to leave them with a meaningful message: “Be unafraid. We’re leaving you a world that is still in turmoil, that has returned to turmoil, with a lot of uncertainties, but don’t despair.
“You’re getting the tools here. I want to underscore how precious the time here is. Anchor it in your hearts and reach back to it when you need to, because it will take you far. There’s power in that, even in uncertainty.”