2008 Winter Commencement
December 14, 2008
Congratulations to all of you who entered the arena today as students and who will leave 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 milestones. But it is just as special a day for your families, who prepared you, encouraged you, and supported you throughout your academic career.
Let’s take a moment to thank these families – the parents and grandparents, brothers, sisters and spouses who gave our university community such wonderful students. Graduates, surely there were times you felt alone in your college career, but you always had your family and friends. Please stand and join me in giving them the ovation they deserve.
Graduates, you leave here with a University of Michigan education, one that has emphasized not only knowledge, but also collaboration, creativity, and the value of thoughtfully examining problems to develop solutions.
Our world has never needed these skills more.
I have been a university president for 13 years and have had the privilege to address thousands of graduates. But I have never sent them into a world as challenged as the climate you are entering.
We all know the headlines: The economy is fragile, the auto industry is bleeding, foreclosures are up, and the job market is down. And yet I have never felt more encouraged about the quality and potential of our graduates to meet these challenges. Because there are equally strong headlines that tell a more positive story, about you and your classmates and the fact that you have the spirit we need to move forward as a community, a state, and a nation.
This character of yours was abundantly on display last month on election night, when hundreds of students filled the streets and swarmed the Diag to celebrate the election of our next president. It was spontaneous, it was momentous, and I’m certain some of you were part of the outpouring. I know you stopped by my house so I could join you and, sadly, I was out of town. But my husband appreciated the visitors – first at 11:30 and, again, at 1:30 in the morning!
Yours was a heartfelt, historic display of enthusiasm that tells me you are hungry to make a difference in our world.
The opportunities that await you are both fascinating and daunting. What cures does stem cell research hold? How quickly can we develop new energy technologies that move us away from foreign oil? Who has the best ideas for revitalizing our public school systems? The potential of biomedicine, the immediacy of global communications, the power and precision of new technologies – all will transform our approach to health, the arts, and public policy. But only with creative thinkers like yourselves leading that transformation.
And you will lead, because you will bring a fresh perspective to the challenges we face. This entrepreneurial spirit showed its power this past semester with a competition we called 1,000 Pitches. This was a campus-wide initiative to generate 1,000 new business proposals from students like you who are eager to share your ideas and discoveries.
Well, I’m sorry to say we did not receive one thousand ideas. We received one thousand forty-four ideas – hundreds upon hundreds of proposals for new businesses, inventions, and non-profit organizations, all pulled together in three months’ time.
One of the winning ideas came from one of today’s graduates, Jason Gilbert, who is using cell phone technology to design a system that translates sign language into speech, and vice versa. Jason’s innovation joined such diverse proposals as one that converts wastewater into biodiesel fuel, and another that designs low-cost surgical lamps that are reliable in operating rooms in developing countries.
One Thousand Pitches was a fabulous, engaging demonstration of your potential and your creativity. And creativity will be paramount as you move on from Michigan, whether you are entering the job market or pursuing an advanced degree.
Last week I was approached by a graduating student concerned about the job market he is entering. His name is Kai Zhao, and today he is receiving his master’s degree in applied economics, so he has a good handle on the challenges of the downturn we are facing.
Kai wanted my advice, and I will share with you what I told him:
You need to be creative. You may not find the perfect job right away, but I encourage you to take the job you find. Be open-minded about the possibilities before you, work hard, and show your new employer just how valuable you are. You will get recognized.
And use your Michigan connections. You are leaving the University, but the University is not leaving you. Michigan alumni are everywhere in this world, and they are eager to help you grow professionally. Introduce yourself, make connections, and doors will open for you.
I should add that Kai then asked who I could introduce him to in the Michigan family.
One of this University’s most prominent alumni graduated during one of the country’s darkest times, one far more daunting than today’s downturn. Arthur Miller was a U-M student during the Great Depression, and after he earned his degree he struggled, taking small writing jobs here and there. He relied upon one of his professors to help him make connections in the writing world, which soon learned of his profound gift for words.
Arthur Miller felt it was important to remind people of the atmosphere that he and so many others experienced during the 1930s, not because it was hard – which it was – but rather because of the unique mood it inspired. During the ’30s, he said, people had to think beyond themselves and instead focus on the greater community. And that, he said, was a feeling to celebrate.
As you celebrate today, the greater community awaits you. We will miss you on campus, but we will benefit from you every day because of the great work you are bound to accomplish.
For today, goodbye.
For tomorrow, good luck.
And forever, Go Blue!