Remarks at Winter Commencement 2011
Dec. 18, 2011
Congratulations to all the students who will leave here today as alumni of the University of Michigan!
This is one of the most notable moments in lives that I know will be filled with extraordinary events.
Graduates, can you believe this day has finally arrived?
Amidst the final exams, the holiday shopping, the family gatherings, and the overall frenzy that we know as December in America, you have completed this stage of your education and are receiving your diplomas from the University of Michigan.
We couldn’t be happier for you.
You have reached this achievement because you believed in yourself, believed in your professors, and, most significantly, believed in a future that demands talented, creative people.
This is the time of year for believing — or not believing — depending on your outlook.
Consider Santa Claus.
Now I know what you’re thinking: my family and I have paid a lot of tuition for a world-class education, and this woman is talking to me about Santa.
But hear me out.
One of the most popular holiday movies currently being played and replayed is Miracle on 34th Street.
Here we have a department store Santa adamant that he is the authentic Kris Kringle.
Some believe he is insane. Others, they simply believe.
A more modern twist on the credibility of Saint Nicholas is The Polar Express. This is the story of a boy from Grand Rapids who isn’t quite sure what he believes at Christmastime. A magical train trip to the North Pole is designed to open his mind, and his heart.
These two holiday favorites share more than themes of doubt and faith. They share a direct connection with you because, like you, their authors are graduates of the University of Michigan.
Valentine Davies, U-M Class of 1927, wrote Miracle on 34th Street, and received an Academy Award for his story. The American Film Institute considers the movie to be a classic.
The Polar Express is the creation of Chris Van Allsburg, Class of ’72. As a writer and illustrator, he was awarded the prestigious Caldecott Medal for an unparalleled children’s story.
Each of these authors has shown us the power and beauty of believing, sometimes against all reason.
As our newest graduates, you may be wrestling with your own beliefs at the moment. No one will fault you, or any of us here today, for a wavering faith in some of our political and social institutions.
The economy remains tenuous and may have you worried about your prospects for employment, home ownership and social mobility.
The federal government is fractured. It seems the only thing lawmakers can agree upon is to disagree.
The Internet, as powerful as it can be, is also rife with scams, phonies and just plain bad information.
Throughout the world, citizens are questioning regimes that have ruled for decades. And around our country, Americans are wary of banks, the media, and mega-corporations.
Just what should we believe in?
The answer sits before us in caps and gowns.
We believe in you, the Class of 2011. We have to. Not out of desperation or resignation, but rather because of the incredible diversity of ideas and talents you bring to the world.
For all the challenges facing society — and the list is longer than anything Santa deals with — you give us tremendous hope for tomorrow.
That’s because your Michigan education will always serve you well. Both your professors and your classmates have expanded your viewpoints and your base of knowledge in ways you just now understand, and may understand even better in the years ahead.
Your ability to think critically will prove invaluable. The dilemmas of the future may prove difficult, but we are confident in your ability to find and create the knowledge necessary for solutions, negotiations and new approaches.
You have a remarkable commitment to community. You’ve shown that over and over, in service projects, community ventures, and social activism. Giving back is a Michigan value that has carried generations of alumni, and you will further that legacy.
And you are expanding a powerful, global family of Michigan alumni — graduates who believe in making a real difference in the world. From Detroit to Chicago and beyond, from Shanghai to Bangalore, Michigan alumni are models of leadership, service and success.
In Miracle on 34th Street, Kris Kringle repeatedly defends himself against claims there is no such person as Santa.
“I hate to disagree with you,” he says, “but not only IS there such a person, but here I am to prove it.”
And he does prove it, because he believes in himself, and along the way changes the lives of many. Around the world, believers of all ages enjoy Sinter Klaas, Father Christmas, Saint Nicholas, Father Frost and Santa.
Which brings me back to the first question I asked:
Can you believe this day has finally arrived?
Of course you can. You believe in the power of the human mind. You believe in the future. And you believe in yourselves.
You are a gift — University of Michigan graduates who will better our world with transformative ideas, novel solutions, and magical thinking.
We all believe it.
For today, goodbye.
For tomorrow, good luck.And forever, Go Blue!