Enveloped in the joy and excitement of its newest graduating class of ’Canes, the University of Miami welcomed home one of its most beloved daughters on Thursday, bestowing upon her the same honor she so graciously presented to artists and activists, diplomats and doctors, and scientists and scholars during her 14-year tenure as the institution’s leader.
Donna E. Shalala—who took over the presidential reins of an already illustrious UM in 2001 and elevated it to new heights, opening academic and research facilities, boosting its national ranking, and raising billions of dollars—received an honorary doctor of humane letters at the University's largest ever fall commencement.
“I may have been president of this University for 14 years, but today, for the first time, I can say I’m really a Miami Hurricane,” Shalala, dressed in academic regalia, said at the Watsco Center, where an estimated 975 students received newly minted degrees.
“Today you transition from a campus climate that nurtures belonging into a world that is, itself, in transition,” UM President Julio Frenk said to those graduates. “You can and must use all you have learned here to build a bond that unites us through compassionate and committed engagement.”
Shalala, who was the nation’s longest-serving U.S. secretary of health and human services, a position she held for all eight years of the Clinton administration, stepped down as UM’s fifth president at the end of the 2014-15 academic year, taking on new responsibilities as president and CEO of the Clinton Foundation.
Though she no longer helmed the University, Shalala was never far from the UM community's thoughts, especially those of students, hundreds of whom stream through the doors every day of the three-story student center renamed in her honor. On Thursday, Shalala offered them advice, teaching life lessons which she said can actually be learned from a popular college mascot who had always been her “best friend” on campus and “symbolizes all that is good in this community”—Sebastian the Ibis.
Noting that the ibis is the last animal to leave before a hurricane strikes and the first to return after the storm, Shalala called on students to be brave like Sebastian and “have the courage to stand up for your values and stand up for one another.”
“One of my proudest moments on this campus was during the terrible days of 9/11,” said UM’s former president, now a trustee professor of political science and health policy at the University. “Our student leaders reached out to their Muslim and Sikh classmates and made it clear this was a safe campus for them. One of them, the leader of Hillel, our Jewish center, summed it up for all of them when he said, ‘An attack on one of you is an attack on all of us.’ ”
In times of great peril and even greater promise, Shalala told students, “you will be asked to solve some tough challenges and confront our oldest demons.”
She urged them to maintain positive attitudes, no matter what the circumstances. “When any of our teams are behind, Sebastian never loses hope,” she said. “We all suffer setbacks and disappointments in life. The most important thing is to pick ourselves up, brush ourselves off, and keep going. Approach each day with gratitude and curiosity, with open eyes and open ears, open hearts and open minds. When something unexpected comes—and believe me, it always comes—you’ll have the emotional and intellectual tools to handle it.”
The overwhelming majority of graduates at the ceremony enrolled at UM when Shalala was still president, and as they listened to her sage advice, she told them they should emulate Sebastian in treating everyone with kindness, dignity, and respect. “Our world is shaped not only by big events, but by the sum of hundreds of small actions—actions that we take every day,” said Shalala. “Define the future in your individual relationships. The simplest of kind gestures, however insignificant they may seem, can be woven into a brilliant tapestry of compassion, love, and strength.”
She encouraged graduates to take risks. “When I was in your position years ago, I didn’t know exactly where life would take me,” said Shalala, “but I promised myself that I would never play it safe. I’ve kept that promise. As you prepare to leave the University of Miami, my deepest hope is that you won’t play it safe either.
For Toya Brown, who received an accelerated bachelor of science in nursing, graduation day was “the first day of the beginning of the rest of my life,” said the New Orleans native, who plans to take the nursing exam to become board certified and then start applying for jobs in a field she fell in love with because of the compassion nurses must show towards patients.
Brown was one of a multitude of outstanding UM students who graduated Thursday. A total of 16 current and former Hurricane student-athletes also received degrees, bolstering the Department of Athletics’ strong reputation of graduating its scholarship athletes, as evidenced by the most recent NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR) of 90 percent. That figure is well above the national average of 84 percent and ties UM for 15th among Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) institutions.
In addition, UM’s black student-athletes are succeeding in the classroom with some of the highest rates in the country, recording an overall GSR of 90 percent—the fourth best in the nation, behind only Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern, and tied with Notre Dame and South Carolina. UM has been in the top 10 in this category for the past five years.
Commencement was also special for Nilda Peragallo Montano, dean of UM’s School of Nursing and Health Studies, who received the President’s Medal in recognition of her many in achievements. An internationally recognized nursing scientist, Peragallo Montano fostered monumental growth and significant improvement in the curriculum, facilities, and programs at school during her 13 years as dean.
Under her leadership, student enrollment, and the school’s M.S.N. and D.N.P. programs are now ranked among U.S. News & World Report’s 2017 Best Graduate Schools.
With a career devoted to improving the health status of minorities and other underserved populations, she expanded the school’s prominence in the global health arena, leading the 2007 birth of its Center of Excellence for Health Disparities Research, or El Centro, made possible by a National Institutes of Health grant of more than $7 million.
She also led the school’s transition from a small, cramped World War II-era building located on the edge of the Coral Gables campus to the modern 53,000-square-foot four-story M. Christine Schwartz Center for Nursing and Health Studies.
Long a proponent of simulation-based scenarios and the benefits such training offers in preventing mistakes before nursing students head into live clinical situations, Peragallo Montano pushed for the creation of a Simulation Hospital at UM, which opens on the Coral Gables campus next year.
She is headed to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to lead that institution’s nursing school.