CLEMSON — In her first public remarks in South Carolina since leaving the governor's office last year, United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley offered Clemson University graduates a few concise words of wisdom: Be grateful.
"It's a great day at Clemson University, and it's a great day in South Carolina," said Haley, a 1994 Clemson alumna, adding an extra line to her signature catchphrase from her time as governor.
As is the norm for most commencement addresses, her 12-minute speech Thursday to around 750 graduates from the Colleges of Business and Education avoided political commentary and instead stuck to a broader theme of appreciation.
Former S.C. House Speaker David Wilkins, a member of Clemson's board of trustees and former ambassador to Canada, introduced Haley, saying he could tell from her earliest days in the Statehouse that she would become "a leader among leaders."
Besides her parents, who immigrated from India, Haley said Clemson has had the most profound impact on her life. She met her husband, Michael, in her first weekend at the Upstate college and got engaged to him four years later. Now, the couple's daughter attends Clemson.
"Not only did I find a family," Haley said of her time at the university, "I also found myself."
Haley's hopeful outlook came from her parents, she said, who remained grateful for their opportunities despite difficulties as she grew up in Bamberg.
"They got their share of uncomfortable looks and even experienced episodes of outright discrimination," Haley said. "But they also watched South Carolina change and come to not just accept them, but embrace them."
The degree she earned in accounting led her to join the state's business community, which she said then led to her running for the Statehouse and eventually governor. Haley was South Carolina's first female and first minority governor when she was elected in 2010.
"Which led to me being able to raise that orange flag over the Capitol dome at the Statehouse when Clemson football won the national championship (in 2017)," Haley said to a loud ovation. "That is a memory I will cherish forever."
Now, Haley said she views her job as U.N. Ambassador as representing "the best of America to the world, paying it forward for the blessings America has given to me."
The experience, Haley said, has reinforced her appreciation for the freedoms Americans enjoy compared to some other countries around the world. She also advised graduates to "beware of social media," which she said can hinder gratitude by manufacturing a sense of envy.
Since moving to New York last year to work at the United Nations, Haley has often returned to visit friends and family in South Carolina, where she has remained a popular figure.
Nationally, a recent poll found that she is one of the most popular members of the Trump administration, despite her occasional disagreements with the Republican president.