Commencement 2020: ‘A celebration, a new beginning, and a fork in the road’

On Thursday, the first of two days of University of Miami virtual fall commencement ceremonies, some 2,800 undergraduate and graduate students received their degrees.
Student speaker Kaylah Taylor speaking during the virtual 10am Spring grad commencement ceremony. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Two innovative and groundbreaking University alumni, one an executive entrepreneur, the other a stellar broadcast journalist, urged graduates in separate virtual ceremonies on Thursday to follow their inspiration and to become architects of change—good change—in the world. 

Jose R. Mas, chief executive officer of MasTec Inc., and Jackie Nespral, an award-winning NBC TV news anchor, reminded students how unique they are for all that they’ve sacrificed and endured over the past months to arrive at this celebratory achievement. 

“Quite frankly, you have experienced more than many generations before you have lived in an entire lifetime, yet here you are,” Nespral told the graduates. “You have made it through, found your voice, and made it heard loud and clear. You have persevered—and you have shown your ability and willingness to learn, adapt, and ultimately grow, which is what will set you apart.” 

Read about Friday's fall commencement ceremonies.

Mas, speaking at the morning ceremony, addressed more than 1,700 University of Miami doctoral and master’s degree graduates who earned their degrees in the spring and summer. Nespral, who spoke in the afternoon, shared her remarks with 1,100 graduate and undergraduate students from all schools and colleges, except the School of Law, who earned their degrees this fall.

The surging pandemic forced the postponements of graduation ceremonies in the spring and summer, and the recent spike of COVID-19 cases prompted the move to a virtual environment. Despite the inconveniences, students were united on Thursday in their enthusiasm, sense of accomplishment, and appreciation for their academic experience at the University.

Mas, whose professional journey has taken him from digging ditches in the family business to guiding that same company as its CEO to become a prosperous Fortune 500 firm, highlighted the importance of finding—and following—your inspiration. 

Mas said that, like the students, he wished for the opportunity to be together in person. 

“I would love to see the joy in your face, the hope and determination in your eyes mixed in with a little fear for what the future holds,” he said, yet added that regardless, “today is a celebration, a new beginning, and a fork in the road that will lead you on a new and different path on the journey of your life.” 

Recognizing that the graduates had worked “incredibly hard” and that they’d waited “a little extra,” Mas celebrated their “determination, commitment, and effort.” He emphasized that “today is a day to share with family members, loved ones, and those that have supported you along the way”—a lesson he learned at his own graduation ceremony in 1994.

Jose Mas
Jose R. Mas spoke during Thursday's morning ceremony. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Mas has often credited the influence and inspiration of his father on his own life. Jorge Mas Canosa arrived as a penniless refugee from Cuba in 1960 yet went on to launch the firm that would become MasTec. He founded and led the Cuban American National Foundation for 17 years; and as a Cuban American exile leader, he influenced U.S. policy toward Cuba for three decades. His father attended Mas’ University graduate ceremony just months before his death. 

“He had tears of joy running down his face, I didn’t see him cry often, so that was a memorable moment,” Mas recounted. “You see, like so many in this community, my father never had the opportunity to attend college or earn a university degree. He was a political refugee from Cuba, who was embraced in this country and started a new life. That graduation ceremony, for him, was a sort of culmination—and I can imagine his joy and pride in knowing that he had helped his three boys accomplish what he never could.’’ 

All three of the Mas brothers have earned degrees from the University of Miami. Additionally, the commencement speaker serves as a University of Miami trustee. 

Mas shared a number of values—working hard, being humble, not underestimating your abilities, and always striving to make a positive first impression—that have served him in pursuing his professional success. Most important of all, he pointed out, is to find and follow your inspiration.

“This University embodies the freedom of thought, diversity, plenty of sunshine, and a wonderful place to truly find yourself and what you love,” Mas said, noting also Miami’s history of welcoming so many newcomers in search of this freedom and opportunity. 

Mas urged the new graduates to be sure to recognize those in their lives who have helped them along the way. 

“Whether it’s your parents, grandparents, friends or a teacher who pushed you beyond your limits, take the time to say, ‘thank you,’ ” he said. “Do not let this opportunity pass. These are the most important people in your lives. Recognize their efforts and allow them to celebrate this great accomplishment with you.” 

Speaking at the afternoon ceremony, Nespral, born and raised in Miami and the first Hispanic to anchor a network news program, recognized the strength and character that this graduating class has already shown. 

“But now it takes something more, the belief that you can be whatever it is you want to be, that you must never settle for less in your life, and that you must always reach for the highest,” she said. “You have shown that collectively you can change the world, but change doesn’t just happen. You can all be architects of change—change for good.” 

Nespral urged students to choose a career that they felt passionate about and not to fret about choosing the perfect opportunity. She warned that they would face adversity, criticism, and naysayers—as she had—but they should stay the course and follow their dreams.

“I did not compromise who I am or fit into the mold that they expected me to be,” she said. “I never imagined it would be so difficult. Because when you have to fight discrimination and doubt, in life or in front of a national audience, it takes a toll. But I believed in myself, stood my ground, and succeeded.”

She noted that journalism has been attacked lately in many ways as “fake news.” 

“This is another test, because if journalism is done right it can be considered to be a pillar, supporting the foundation of our democracy,” Nespral said. “Sometimes we have the power and potential to change lives, to open eyes, and to hold those in positions of power accountable,” she added. 

“I’m here today to inspire you to be bold, to be courageous, and to be confident. To remind you that where you came from does not dictate where you’re going,” Nespral continued, adding “never forget your roots and don’t compromise who you are as a person to please someone else.” 

Jackie Nespral
Jackie Nespral spoke during Thursday's afternoon ceremony, addressing graduate and undergraduate students who earned their degrees this fall. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

Christopher Bared, a Miami native who earned his master’s degree in journalism, was one of the graduates who viewed the morning address virtually. Like so many of his classmates, he had hoped for an in-person ceremony, but he understood the current risks.

Bared said that he looks forward to finding a job in journalism that allows him to be creative and tell meaningful stories. He also hopes to teach at a university someday—ideally out West.

This semester, he indicated, taught him to be more proactive and to work better under tight deadlines. He urged his peers still in school to be bolder.

“Don’t worry so much about what other people think and don’t tiptoe through the world because you want everyone to like you or like your work,” Bared urged. “If you want to accomplish something you should be bold, assertive, and confident in yourself to achieve it—that will lead to success.”

Scylla Blervacq, originally from Brussels, Belgium, graduated this semester with a B.S. in Health Science.

She attended classes in blended mode, with in-person small classes several days a week. “I definitely missed campus life as we know it, with the bake sales in the breezeways and events happening almost every day,” Blervacq said. “But I am also very grateful that, for my last semester, I was given the chance to have some classes in person and was able to walk across campus even a little bit!”

She encouraged her peers to take advantage of all opportunities, including virtual ones.

“Enjoy what the University has to offer you, even if it means attending club meetings online, following virtual gym classes, or sitting in a classroom six feet away from one another,” she said. “Every memory you make will stay with you forever and you should enjoy every one, because time flies and you’ll graduate before you even realize it.”

Kaylah Taylor, a multitalented musician and music educator, served as the student speaker at the graduate ceremony. She earned her Master in Music Business and Entertainment Industries from the Frost School of Music.

Quoting from abolitionist Frederick Douglass, Taylor reminded students that “if there is no struggle, there is no success” and related her own challenges of growing up in Liberty City with her mother, older sister, and “a determination to make my own way.”

“I like to say that ‘I am autistic and artistic,’ ” said Taylor. “I’m a music teacher for K-6 students, a musician, a singer, a lupus butterfly—and I will do my part to stand and advocate for others.”

Taylor urged her fellow graduates to do the same and to share their knowledge wherever and with whomever they can.

“Use it, share it with others around you—to help a neighbor, friend, colleague, or to instill in the next generation,” she said. “Find new ways to connect with your community around—they deserve to know graduates like you.”

—Ashley A. Williams contributed to this report.