In Korematsu Lecture, US Ambassador Christopher Lu advises students to take risks

At the annual Fred T. Korematsu Lecture, Christopher Lu, US Ambassador to the UN for Management and Reform, began his remarks by calling himself a “failed lawyer.”

After graduating from Harvard Law School, Lu began work at a law firm as a litigator, but—itching to be involved directly in public service—a few years later he took a position as chief counsel for the Democratic staff on the US House of Representatives’ Oversight and Government Reform Committee. His parents, who are immigrants, didn’t understand why he would have gotten a law degree only to work in politics, Lu said.

It wasn’t until years later, in 2009, when he was named President Barack Obama’s cabinet secretary, that they began to accept that he could find success on his chosen path, Lu said. Even then, he joked, when his mother visited him in the West Wing, she asked, “Why is your office so small?”

Co-hosted by Asian-Pacific American Law Students Association at NYU Law and NYU’s Asian/Pacific/American Institute, the Korematsu lecture honors an Asian American who has contributed significantly to the legal profession.

In his remarks on April 3, Lu discussed how “lightning struck” for him professionally when his law school classmate Barack Obama was elected to the US Senate in 2004 and asked Lu to join his team as legislative director and acting chief of staff. After Obama won the presidential election in 2008, Lu was executive director of the Obama-Biden transition team and then became Obama’s cabinet secretary after he took office. In 2014, Lu was appointed the deputy secretary for the US Department of Labor, a position he held until January 2017. He was the first Asian American to serve in that role. Nominated by President Biden to serve as a permanent representative of the US to the UN for Management and Reform, Lu was confirmed in December 2021.

Reflecting on his childhood, Lu said it was challenging to grow up as an Asian American who had an interest in politics but encountered few role models who looked like him. However, he said, he’s been fortunate in his professional life to work for people who value diversity, including President Obama and President Biden. “When you are trying to solve the problems that face the country and face the world, you don’t want everyone who has the same experience, who has the same mindset,” he said.

Lu said that his new role as US ambassador has given him the opportunity to concentrate on foreign policy, rather than the domestic policy issues that had been the focus of his career previously. When asked how he collaborates on global initiatives, such as working to stop climate change, with countries that otherwise have tense relationships with the United States, Lu said: “Diplomacy is everything.”

Turning to the students in the audience, Lu offered the following advice: “It’s okay not to know what you’re going to do with the rest of your life,” he said. “I say to all of you, get the best education you can—and you’re really at one of the best places—get the best training at whatever jobs that you can, seek interesting opportunities, find good mentors, be willing to take chances with your career.”

Posted May 22, 2023.