Winter Commencement 2005
December 18, 2005
Congratulations to all the students who will leave here today as alumni of the University of Michigan!
For our graduates, this is one of the most notable moments in lives that I know will be rich with extraordinary events. But it is just as special a day for your families, who prepared you for Michigan, encouraged you, and supported you. I’d like all of us to take a moment to thank the parents and grandparents and brothers and sisters who gave our university community such wonderful students.
Earlier this year, at the start of what would be your final semester of classes, I received an email from a student who was just embarking on his U-M career.
He told me he felt totally indifferent about having been admitted to the University of Michigan, because he saw college as yet one more station in life.
And then he arrived on campus for Welcome Week. And something very unexpected occurred to him as he walked along South University, and then Forest, and finally Church Street.
He was lost.
For the first time in a long time, he was lost. And, he said, “It was wonderful and thrilling.”
He felt no fear, no panic, only enthusiasm and anticipation. In fact, in that one moment of wondering just where he was, he realized he was ready to “tear it up” as a U-M student.
Today, as you prepare to leave this great university – for a new job, a graduate program, an extended vacation, or a few months in your parents’ guest room – I hope you carry with you the eagerness and fascination that comes with the unforeseen.
Leading a life that is uncalculated delivers priceless rewards. It means discovering the new and the unexpected. And nothing will make your life more interesting as you settle into a career, a family, and a community.
When he was an old man, the great American pioneer Daniel Boone sat for an official portrait, and the painter inquired whether he had ever lost his way. The frontiersman thought for a moment and replied, “No, I can’t say I was ever lost, but I was bewildered once for three days.”
I suspect that in the past few years at the University, you have experienced moments of bewilderment. We have never coddled you, and that was intentional, because part of the growing process involves finding your own way, on your own terms.
And you have been challenged in your time on campus. It may have been something as simple as learning to navigate the stacks of the Grad Library, as stimulating as a classroom debate, as daunting as defending your dissertation, or as sobering as discovering your faults.
It may have been as thought-provoking as seeing our country go to war, or as difficult as watching others suffer through horrific acts of nature that swept away lives and communities.
After Arthur Miller established himself as one of our greatest playwrights, he looked back on the University and what it had done for him. “It was,” he said, “a place that respected one’s confusion, which it countered not with doctrine, but the freedom to search and the instruments for it.”
If we have done our job as faculty and as mentors, we have given you the tools to think critically, to act creatively, and to lead boldly. You say goodbye to Ann Arbor, ready to take on the world and everything it will throw at you. Because as much as you plan, and prepare, and sketch the map of your future, you do not know what awaits you or what directions your life will take. And that is the promise of graduation.
A few years back, a Michigan student graduated from this arena and awaited his first job offer, only to find his prospective employers saying this about him: “Poor build, very skinny and narrow, lacks mobility and the ability to avoid the rush, lacks a really strong arm.”
Tom Brady now has three Super Bowl rings, two trophies for Most Valuable Player and more magazine covers than one person should have – especially a sixth-round draft pick. But what I think is most telling is how he views himself and where life has taken him. Two weeks ago, he was named Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. When he accepted the honor, he said it meant more to him than any ring or any title because of what it represented: “a commitment to excellence.”
Excellence defines a Michigan education. You experienced it with your professors, their knowledge, and their expectations of you, and you demonstrated it with your achievements in the classrooms and laboratories. The days ahead may be undefined, but your U-M experience gives you the knowledge and the confidence to approach both the opportunities and the threats of tomorrow.
Two years ago, undergraduate David Enders was in his final semester, months away from commencement and a guaranteed job as a reporter in Detroit. And he made a bold change in course that took him from the comfort of the Midwest directly into one of the most dangerous places on earth – Iraq. What better place, he reasoned, to establish a magazine called the Baghdad Bulletin and a free press than a region undergoing a momentous political transformation.
His rationale for doing something so unexpected? “Why not?”
Why not, indeed! Your U-M education has exposed you to faculty who never cease to question and provoke. Your classmates have come from every region of the country and the world, offering countless viewpoints and beliefs. And you have explored theories and disciplines you never knew existed before your days in Ann Arbor. Your destiny is undefined, but your skills and talents are not.
Consider Annie Smith Peck, like you a graduate of this great university with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Greek. She went on to a respectable career as a classics professor at Purdue University and later Smith College. But it was while traveling in Switzerland that she saw her true vocation: the Matterhorn. And so she climbed it – at the age of 45 – and it was the first of many mountains throughout the world that she would scale in becoming one of the greatest mountaineers of the 20th century. She last climbed when she was 82 years old. As a fellow alum would say 70 years later, “Why not!”
Now, as the president of the University on your final day as a Michigan student, am I telling you to take a hike, to get lost? Absolutely! But in the warmest of ways. Be willing to jump off a cliff at least once in your life. I guarantee you will find it exhilarating.
It was 200 years ago this fall that a handful of white men, a black slave, and a Native American woman stood on a bluff at the western edge of our continent. They had spent two years in the wilderness, battling weather and animals and profound obstacles, to literally chart a new course for the nation. Despite their struggles and hardships, and the fact their trip was only half completed, when the Lewis and Clark expedition looked outward and saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time, William Clark exclaimed, “Oh! The joy!”
There are tremendous rewards in the discoveries that come with being unorthodox like Annie Peck, being unpredictable like David Enders, and being underestimated like Tom Brady. If you are unafraid to say “Why not?” – to wander off course every now and then – you will experience incredible joy in your lives.
We will miss you, but we will take great pride in your journeys and your accomplishments. And if your travels at some point bring you back to Ann Arbor, that will be our great joy.
Congratulations, good luck, and Go Blue!