2009 Spring Commencement
May 2, 2009
Congratulations to the Class of 2009! This is your biggest day at Michigan and you deserve the Big House to celebrate your accomplishment!
Just as extraordinary as your achievement as scholars is the love and support you have received over the years from your families. For the parents and grandparents, the brothers and sisters who are with us today, we say thank you for sharing your students, because they have made us a better university.
Graduates, please join me in applauding your families for everything they have done for you to make today’s celebration possible.
I have been a university president for 14 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 tremendous confidence in the ability of this class of graduates, the Class of 2009, to be the leaders who will move us forward as a community, a state, and a nation.
There will be challenges. You will need to draw on the skills you have developed in the classroom and the laboratory. You will need to be creative, and you will need to be flexible. Be open-minded about the possibilities before you, commit yourself to your responsibilities, and demonstrate just how valuable you are.
And know that you enter this next stage of your lives with a unique commodity: a degree from the University of Michigan. That tells the world you understand the importance and value of critical thinking, of creativity, and of problem solving.
Your degree also grants you lifetime membership in a powerful global organization: the largest alumni body in the world. You now share a common bond with journalists the likes of Mike Wallace, public servants such as Mary Frances Berry, and innovators who have transformed our world, people like our speaker today, Larry Page.
You may be 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 and personally. Introduce yourself, make connections, and doors will open for you.
They always do.
An earlier generation of Michigan students left Ann Arbor with their diplomas and joined a society far more troubled than today’s world. As Dean McDonald mentioned earlier, graduates of the Depression faced a fractured world: staggering unemployment, homelessness, and a planet moving uneasily and sometimes violently toward world war.
But remarkable people were in those graduating classes. And as they always do, Michigan graduates headed into the world determined to make a difference, and were not discouraged by temporary detours in their paths to success.
Arthur Miller was a member of the Class of 1938. He had made quite an impression as a student, winning Hopwood Awards and showing great promise as a writer. He headed to New York and did what he knew best: he wrote a play. It was a play that never saw the lights of a stage. He then went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and also wrote radio scripts. He wrote another play, one that made it to Broadway only long enough for the critics to tear it apart.
Arthur Miller would go on to become one of the greatest playwrights of the 20th century.
Gerald Ford was a member of the Class of 1935, when unemployment exceeded 20 percent and dust storms ravaged middle America. He, too, had made a name for himself on campus as a star athlete. Yet he turned down offers from pro football teams because he wanted to become a graduate student. When he realized he could not afford law school, he took a job coaching football, and then boxing, even though he didn’t know the first thing about boxing. He built up his savings, applied to law school, and was rejected. He worked as a park ranger, went back to coaching, saved more money, and got into law school – on a trial basis.
Gerald Ford would go on to become the 38th president and one who healed a country facing its greatest constitutional crisis since the Civil War.
He also would honor his alma mater by allowing our School of Public Policy to carry his name, and today we celebrate the first class of undergraduates to graduate from the Ford School.
There is the story of yet one more Michigan graduate who faced extraordinary circumstances, only to succeed because of determination, talent and an eye toward the future.
Brian Scott Wilson is a member of the Class of 2009. He enrolled as a saxophone major, but abandoned his dream of a music career during his sophomore year. It was then that he was diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumor, one that would require extensive, and expensive, treatment. Brian shifted his intellectual pursuits to aerospace engineering, because he enjoyed it and because of its financial stability.
In the face of radiation treatments, chemotherapy, and several brain surgeries, Brian remained a full-time Michigan student. He shuttled between doctors here at Michigan and in North Carolina. His family suggested he take a break, travel, consider doing things he’d always wanted to do. But he made it clear, to his family and his doctors, that all he wanted in life was to graduate from Michigan.
Today, Brian Wilson wears the orange tassel of a College of Engineering graduate. He worked hard – harder than any of us will ever know – he reached the goal he set for himself, and he is bound for a job with Boeing Corporation. And he will do it with his Michigan degree.
Graduates, like Arthur Miller, you will write your own stories. You will make a difference with your ideas, your inventions, and your initiative, because these are the trademarks of leaders.
Like Gerald Ford, you will create change for the better, you will work on behalf of your neighbors, and you will do it with dignity and integrity.
And like Brian Wilson, you will do all this, and more, as a graduate of the University of Michigan.
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!