Winter Commencement 2006
Dec. 17, 2006
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, grandparents, spouses, brothers and sisters who gave our university community such wonderful students.
The singer and songwriter John Mayer has a new pop song that’s getting a lot of airplay — at last check, it was No. 7 on the Billboard charts. You may already have his CD or have the song loaded onto your iPods.
It’s called “Waiting on the World to Change,” and it’s about young people like you. Here is a bit of his message:
“Now we see everything that's going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel like we don't have the means
To rise above and beat it
“So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change”
For the students seated before me, you are minutes away from becoming graduates of the University of Michigan. Rather than waiting on the world to change, I say: Don’t wait, and change the world.
We expect this of you. And we need this of you. You have too much talent and creativity to be still.
Aaron Dworkin didn’t wait for the world around him to change. As a student in the School of Music, he wanted to see more musicians who looked like him. He created a group that he called the Sphinx Organization, and set out to recruit more African-American and Latino musicians to play classical music.
That was a decade ago. And when you are dealing with Aaron Dworkin, a lot can happen in 10 years. Sphinx has opened the world of classical music to 45,000 students in 100 different schools. Aspiring musicians have benefited from more than $800,000 in scholarships. Sphinx artists have performed at Carnegie Hall and have graduated to join professional symphonies across the country, which are beginning to look a bit more like the world around them.
Aaron Dworkin’s passion to change the world has been so profound that the MacArthur Foundation awarded him one of its prestigious “genius” grants.
They say good things come to those who wait. I say greatness comes to those who act.
We’ve seen that with our students in the School of Public Health. Rather than waiting for change, they headed to the Gulf Coast this past February to dedicate their spring breaks to helping the region recover from Hurricane Katrina.
It was hard, dirty work. Our students experienced every emotion possible, from the frustration of bureaucratic red tape and the anger of seeing poor people abandoned, to the joy of reuniting families and the pride that comes with being part of a community.
These students did not sit idle and wait to be told to go to New Orleans or Biloxi. They organized themselves, made the trip south, and applied what they know about good public health. And they’re going back next spring to help people continue their rebuilding.
Please don’t wait for the world to change. If you do, that wait will be far too long. Do not deprive us of your energy and your intelligence. Cynicism or apathy should never smother your desire to have an impact on another human being.
When I was your age and receiving my degree, the clarion call for graduates was to join the Peace Corps. It was no coincidence when John F. Kennedy announced his vision for the Peace Corps, he did so while standing on the steps of the Michigan Union. U-M students seized upon his words. They formed a group known as “Americans Committed to World Responsibility” and successfully rallied college students across the country — my generation — to embrace the idea of the Peace Corps.
To this day, Michigan graduates make us one of the leading universities in the country for Peace Corps volunteers.
Michigan students know what it means to give back and pay it forward. Altruism is a legacy of a Michigan education.
This month’s holiday celebrations remind us of the importance of sacrifice and giving. But the real difference will be made by your willingness to contribute every month of the year.
I want to share with you the words of another American president who addressed Michigan graduates at commencement:
“We have the power,” he said, “to shape the civilization that we want. But we need your will, your labor, your hearts, if we are to build that kind of society.”
That was Lyndon Johnson, who unveiled his ambitious Great Society program to the Class of ’64 at Michigan Stadium. He wanted solutions to a multitude of problems: poverty; racial injustice; urban sprawl and pollution; and the deep desire to provide college educations to more young people.
In 1964, this was President Johnson’s checklist of crises to be resolved in America. As we approach the final days of 2006, these are the problems of our world.
Regrettably, the issues that Lyndon Johnson enumerated have not been solved. Our global needs and challenges are more complex and more intertwined than ever. If we have done our job as faculty and administrators, you understand these problems and you appreciate fully that it will take many minds and different perspectives to develop the necessary solutions and cures. You have learned this through your coursework and research, in your lab experiments, and with the student groups you joined and led.
This is the Michigan Difference, that measure of academic excellence that sets our university apart from other institutions, and it defined your education. It is what gives your diploma meaning.
As an alumnus, you will be the Michigan Difference. You will be the leaders and best because you will make an impact on our world. We will miss you on campus, but we will benefit from you every day because of the great work you are bound to accomplish.
If pop singers and others want to wait on the world to change, so be it. They will have a front-row seat to watch Michigan graduates — graduates like you who will improve our communities, lead our corporations, and shape the future.
And that will be something to sing about.
Congratulations, and Go Blue.