Remarks at Winter Commencement 2012
December 16, 2012
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 U-M.
We couldn’t be happier for you.
You believed in yourself, believed in your professors, and, most significantly, believed in a future that demands talented, creative people.
You have spent your days at Michigan during the most severe economic downturn in both our state and nation since the Depression. Your tenure has been coupled with an atmosphere of political divisiveness defined by bitterness and stagnation.
It would be understandable if you graduated and entered the world jaded, angry and more than a little anxious. There is, after all, a certain comfort and security that comes with being a college student.
You would not be the first Michigan student to think about staying just a little longer. Allow me to quote an earlier U-M graduate:
“I feel so at home in my little Ann Arbor that I am beginning to sink roots here, and have a hard time imagining my leaving it.”
That was a young man named Raoul Wallenberg, who earned his degree in architecture in 1935. This year, 2012, has been the centennial of his birth – as well as the year of your graduation.
What Raoul Wallenberg said next, when he thought about lingering in Ann Arbor, was beyond mature.
“But I am not doing anything very useful here.”
There comes a moment – in your case, today – when it is time to move on to the next challenge.
For Raoul Wallenberg, the obstacles he faced after graduation were unlike anything ever encountered by a Michigan alumnus.
As a Swedish diplomat working in Budapest during World War II, he was an eyewitness to the fear and brutality of the Holocaust.
An eyewitness, but not a bystander. Rather, he repeatedly risked his life to rescue thousands of Hungarian Jews from the Nazi death camps.
He pulled them from cramped moving boxcars. When Nazis forced prisoners to walk to the camps, Wallenberg chased after them, shoving food and medicine their way.
He found countless ways to shelter terrified men, women and children trying to survive in what was, by then, the last surviving ghetto of Jews in Europe.
He rescued some 100,000 – more human beings than any one person has ever saved. At one point, frustrated that he could not help more, he apologized for saving only the young.
“I want to save a nation.”
I want. To save. A nation.
Those are searing words.
I’m not sure any of us can fathom Wallenberg’s bravery, or the source of his moral courage. He was, and is, a hero of the highest order. He showed us, more than any Michigan graduate, that one person can make a difference.
What does Raoul Wallenberg have to do with your diploma or how you lead your life starting tomorrow?
You share a heritage. You have walked the same Diag, relaxed in the same Michigan Union, and been entertained in the same magnificent Hill Auditorium.
More significantly, you have experienced a transformative education that goes well beyond the classroom. It is one that stressed critical thinking, the diversity of ideas, and the critical necessity of a global perspective.
As Wallenberg himself said of Michigan, “I really feel that I’ve learned something.”
A fascinating report was issued earlier this week about what the world might look like in 2030 – a time when you will be fully into careers, families and personal passions.
Analysts say the upcoming years will be shaped by one overarching global trend: individual empowerment. The middle class will grow, more people will be better educated, and new technologies will present untold opportunities for both work and play.
This is a world where, more than ever, individuals will make a difference with their creativity and actions.
These individuals will be you. The world will look to you, as graduates of one of the great universities, for solutions to climate change, new models of public education, innovative cures and therapies, and the leadership that is a hallmark of Michigan alumni.
Like Raoul Wallenberg, you cannot imagine the challenges that await you. You cannot predict how you will react.
But you can, and must, draw on the knowledge that you, like this great humanitarian, really have learned something.
When you reflect on being a member of the class of 2012, know that it was the same year the University of Michigan celebrated a graduate who changed the world. Carry with you the long-held Michigan values of service, commitment and a readiness to lead.
Believe that you, like Wallenberg and as educated, empowered individuals, can – and will – make a difference, in transforming our state, our nation and our world with your ideas and actions.
For today, goodbye.
For tomorrow, good luck.
And forever, Go Blue!