Lessons for the Class of 2017

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.

Lessons for the Class of 2017

By Robert C. Jones, Jr.
Speakers urge UM’s graduating students to use their skills and talents to make a difference.

With the world at a crossroads of either poverty and injustice or progress and opportunity, former three-time Prime Minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland urged the University of Miami’s newest graduates Friday to use their knowledge and creativity to put the planet on a path toward greater equality.

“You are the largest youth generation in history. You are also the most globally connected and aware,” Brundtland told the 750 undergraduates who received newly minted degrees at UM’s morning commencement ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences. “Use your education, skills, and talents to find solutions that will open doors for everyone.”

Brundtland’s advice, delivered after she received an honorary doctor of humane letters, came as graduates sat poised to enter a new world of opportunities. But before they embarked on that journey, the physician who worked for a decade to improve children’s health in Norway’s public health system taught them a few more lessons, advising them to “stay open to opportunities that may not be in your original plan.”

She recalled the time in 1974 when she was offered the post of minister of the environment for Norway but resisted, believing she was not qualified for the position. Brundtland quickly learned, however, that the knowledge and experience she acquired as a Harvard-educated public health specialist were ideal for the job. “We need many more professionals, analysts, decision-makers, and political leaders with knowledge and experience that cross traditional borders,” she said.

Brundtland, who served a five-year term as director general of the World Health Organization, told graduates to “look for connections between issues, between sectors and between people.”

“When I led the World Health Organization, I saw the connectedness of the world, where a disease outbreak in one country can disregard borders and board an airplane to another,” she recalled. “Don’t write off problems as out of your realm; contemplate how your skills and expertise can make a difference across social, economic, and environmental challenges.”

She also exhorted graduates to try new solutions but to always base them in evidence.

Many of the students at the ceremony are destined for corporate jobs, public service, research, and professional school. But whatever career path they take, “focus on your impact, not your job title,” Brundtland told them.

“What has motivated me throughout my career is the good I could do, not the résumé that I could build. You will quickly find that what will sustain you in good times and bad is working on causes you care about,” she said, noting the progress she achieved on such issues as health care, gender equality and climate change.

Adina Benasayad, (left), and other Venezuelans
Graduate Adina Benasayad, (left), and other Venezuelans in Friday’s commencement exercises showed support for their countrymen involved in protests against the Venezuelan government.

Adina Benasayad, a UM student from Venezuela who graduated at the morning ceremony with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, took Brundtland’s advice to heart, saying she hopes to help heal her homeland of the economic, political, and social chaos in which it is currently mired.

“My country has been going through an indescribable humanitarian crisis where human rights are being violated,” she said. “Students like me, instead of going to universities, are fighting on the streets for our freedom. Now that I have graduated, my dream is to be able to go back to my country and take advantage of everything I learned at the U to help build a better Venezuela.”

The ceremony was the first of three held Friday. At the midday exercise for the Schools of Architecture, Communication, Education and Human Development, Nursing and Health Studies, Frost School of Music, and Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, honorary degree recipient Marcia McNutt, who, as the first female director of the U.S. Geological Survey played a key role capping the blown-out well after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, said each member of the Class of 2017 will eventually face their own equivalent of the Deepwater Horizon disaster.

“For some of you, it may already have happened. For others, it remains to be encountered,” said McNutt, who is now president of the National Academy of Sciences. “But my wish for all of you is that you will find your passion—for a life lived without passion is an empty life.”

A former editor of Science, the peer-reviewed journal of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, McNutt encouraged graduates to save the oceans, bring beauty to those who have never seen it through fabulous music, develop and design creative architecture to allow us to retreat from rising seas and climate change, resurrect extinct species and find extraterrestrials.

“Whatever you do, we’re counting on you,” she said.

The chairman of Cisneros, one of the largest, privately held media, entertainment, telecommunications, and consumer products organizations in the world, Gustavo A. Cisneros gave advice to graduates at the afternoon ceremony for the College of Engineering and School of Business Administration.

Thomas J. LeBlanc, the outgoing UM executive vice president and provost who is headed to The George Washington University to serve as its president, received the President’s Medal at the afternoon exercise.

And earlier in the week in two separate ceremonies, UM honored its black graduates at the annual Senior Mwambo ceremony at Gusman Concert Hall, and its graduating LGBTQ students and allies at the third annual  Lavender Celebration, held at the Newman Alumni Center. As Pat Whitely, vice president for student affairs noted at the latter, the 2016-2017 year brought the successful inauguration of the LGBTQ Student Center, which has impacted more than 2,500 students, faculty, staff, and administrators since opening this past fall.

"We are here," she told the graduates, "to celebrate your achievements and all of our identities as we continue to strive towards and inspire inclusion among the entire UM community.