Detroit Western International High School Commencement
June 8, 2007
Good morning, and congratulations to the Class of 2007!
I want to thank Principal Rebeca Luna, the leadership of Western International High School, and the PTSA for inviting me to be part of such a special day for your school. And thank you, Deanna, for your lovely introduction—and for choosing the University of Michigan!
Seniors, can you believe you’re really graduating? Did you think today would never arrive? Your families, your teachers, and the leaders of the Detroit Public Schools system have all gathered to pay tribute to you, the Class of ’07.
You’ve worked so hard to reach this point in your academic careers. You’ve studied long hours, you’ve thrown yourself into your courses and after-school activities, and today—finally—all of your efforts pay off when you walk across the stage and receive your diploma.
All of you are success stories, and all of the family members, teachers and guests gathered here are extremely proud of your accomplishments.
You are special to me because as a university president, I love seeing bright, motivated high school seniors. You are the future of our city, our state and our world, and your energy and creativity are the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
When you are invited to be a graduation speaker, you’re given the job of passing along wisdom and advice to the seniors, in hope that it will inspire and motivate them.
You, the Class of 2007, are making my job easy, because you represent inspiration and motivation.
My message to you is simple yet strong: Never lose your passion, that enthusiasm that has brought you to this stage today.
Feed the determination and love of learning that have made you a high school graduate. Always be committed to your family, to your community, and to your education, because all will serve you well in the future.
Family, community, and education.
I want to tell you about a member of Congress named Ken Salazar. Senator Salazar represents the state of Colorado, and when he took office in 2005, he became the first Hispanic in nearly 30 years to serve in the United States Senate.
Ken Salazar is one of eight children. He was raised on a ranch in southern Colorado, in a rural region of the country. He will be the first to tell you he grew up poor—his house did not have electricity, or a telephone, until eight years after he graduated from high school. He did his homework by the glow of a kerosene lamp.
Senator Salazar will also be the first to tell you his parents were his biggest champions. They never went to college, but they stressed hard work and education to their children, and every one of those eight children went on to become first-generation college graduates. One of those colleges was the University of Michigan, where Senator Salazar earned his law degree.
Like Ken Salazar, your family’s passion and commitment to your success have helped you achieve your goals. Now it’s your turn to show your dedication to your family by continuing to grow and succeed as educated citizens of the world.
You must also continue to be passionate about your home … about Clark Park, Detroit, and our great state of Michigan.
Whether you go far from Detroit or you remain in the community, Clark Park and southwest Detroit define you—for all the best reasons. You are your community’s greatest ambassadors.
To be a leader in tomorrow’s world, you must understand and embrace diversity, and as graduates of Western International you have done that. You are Puerto Rican, you are African American, you are Dominican, and you are Mexican. You have roots in many countries of the world, you have grown up among different languages, and you celebrate diverse cultures.
These are the very qualities we need in tomorrow’s leaders. This is what we encourage and promote at the University of Michigan. We want students like you, young people who value different perspectives and family histories. Students who have experience in diverse classrooms are more analytical and more engaged. You are more open to perspectives that differ from your own, and you are better prepared to become active players in society.
Being passionate about your community means voting and encouraging others to do the same. It means rehabilitating a home or business. It means speaking out against injustice.
Being passionate means saying no to gangs, no to drugs, and yes to PTAs, neighborhood organizations, and civic engagement.
From this beautiful location today, we are gathered between two historic spans—the Ambassador Bridge and the Belle Isle Bridge. These are the bridges of your community. Bridges take you places, and I know you will go in many directions as you prepare to leave Western International. But bridges also connect you, to your neighborhood and your community, and you should always respect and nurture that bond.
Finally, and most importantly, never ever lose your passion for learning.
I want to share the story of another University of Michigan graduate, an African American named Benjamin Carson who attended our medical school after graduating from Yale University.
Like you, Dr. Carson grew up in Detroit. He graduated from Southwestern High School, so you’ve probably walked some of the same streets he did.
Benjamin Carson is a pediatric neurosurgeon who operates on the tiniest and most fragile of brains. He was the first doctor ever to successfully separate Siamese twins who were joined at the head, and he is respected worldwide as a pioneer.
Remarkably, when he was a young boy, Benjamin Carson was told he was stupid. He was teased and called a dummy. In fact, “Dummy” was his nickname.
And then his mother began taking him to the public library, and made him check out books. She turned off the TV and sat with him and his brother while they read, and then made them write book reports.
Young Benny Carson soon realized that books took him and his imagination to other worlds. That’s when he began to realize the human brain is an amazing tool.
He also learned a secret about his mother: She could not read. When she took him to the library, and looked over his book reports, she did not understand the words on the pages. But she knew the importance and value of learning, and she passed it on to her son.
That is a passion for education.
Dr. Carson’s favorite saying is, “Think big.” I know you’ve heard the same message from Principal Luna and your teachers, from your parents and grandparents, who have all set the bar very high and pushed you to excel. Their expectations have helped make you the success you are today. You’ve conquered your AP courses, you’ve earned thousands of dollars in scholarships, and you’ve been accepted to colleges like the U-M, the University of Detroit, Wayne State and Michigan State.
In Michigan, we have a marvelous system of universities, colleges and community colleges, and I believe every student in our state should take advantage of them. At some point I hope you enroll at U-M. Perhaps we’ll see each other this fall when you begin your studies as a freshman. Maybe you will transfer from community college or another university. Or you will consider Michigan when you move on to graduate school, because we have some of the best programs in the world.
At U-M and elsewhere, college will inspire you—with new ideas and perspectives. Professors will expose you to hundreds of academic disciplines. It might be dance or German; nursing or oceanography; dramatic writing or molecular biology. You’ll find students from throughout the world, faculty who are the best in their fields, and an environment that crackles with the energy of discovery and imagination.
Many years after leaving high school, I had the opportunity to write a tribute to one of my favorite teachers. Walter Gohman taught chemistry and science and really inspired me to become a scientist, even though society at that time didn’t encourage girls to pursue careers in chemistry or biology.
When I wrote my essay about Mr. Gohman, he was quite elderly and in a nursing home. It shouldn’t have taken me so long to thank him, but I’m glad I did because he did so much to challenge me and build my confidence.
For many of you, Mr. Angel Garcia was your inspiration. Teachers have a way of working their way into your minds, and your hearts, and I know you miss him very much.
We’ve also suffered a terrible loss at the University of Michigan. Earlier this week, six members of our transplant team perished in a plane crash while rushing an organ to a very sick patient. There is a memorial service for one of those individuals today, and I know you will understand that I need to leave immediately after my talk so that I may pay my respects.
Before you leave today, I hope you will find one of your favorite teachers and thank him or her for their encouraging words and important lessons. Because of their passion for learning, they’ve helped you grow as a person.
Growing as a person. Today is one of those milestone achievements in your lives. After the tears and the hugs, you will say goodbye, ready to take on the world and everything it will throw at you. And as much as you plan and prepare, you really do not know what awaits you or what directions your life will take.
Be guided by your passions. You have the foundation of your family. You have the strength of your community. And you have the power of your education. All of them are limitless, as are the heights you will reach in the days and years ahead.
Congratulations, again, on your achievements. Thank you.