A Story Well-Lived

By Robert C. Jones Jr.

A Story Well-Lived

By Robert C. Jones Jr.
Graduate students receive newly minted degrees at a ceremony where ambition and experience are valued as keys to success.

From Flaubert to Faulkner, Peruvian-born novelist and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa has never kept secret the names of renowned writers from which he learned his craft. But even at the age of 82, with a multitude of acclaimed literary works now behind him, he still had a confession to make on Thursday when he addressed more than a thousand graduates at the University of Miami’s first-ever commencement held solely for master’s degree recipients:

“Throughout my life as a writer, everything I have written has been driven by an ambition to tell a story well told,” Vargas Llosa, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, told graduates. “A well-told story is one in which the reader does not have the impression of reading but rather of living. A story that gives the reader the impression that words have eclipsed and been replaced by vivid reality, a story that seems to be experienced rather than dreamed.”

For 27-year-old Daphne Baptichon, the novelist’s words couldn’t have rang truer. With immigrant parents who came to the United States with literally only the clothes on their backs, her story is, indeed, one of experience. 

“My father started working as a dishwasher, making only $3 an hour,” said Baptichon, as she waited in the graduate lineup area in the UM Fieldhouse prior to Thursday’s ceremony, where she received her Master’s in Economics from the UM Business School. “But he and my mom worked hard, climbed the ladder, and made sure their children had a better life.” 

With her newly minted degree, Baptichon is now determined to both carve a path of success for her own children and honor the mother and father who encouraged her to get a college education. “This [degree] is for them,” she said, referring to her parents. “I’m proud to have been able to earn it for them.”

Her only lament was that her mother, Maria, now legally blind after an operation to remove a brain tumor, couldn’t be at UM’s Watsco Center to see her daughter march across the commencement stage to accept her diploma. 

With Baptichon’s sights now set on becoming a CPA, time continues to march on for the Palm Beach County resident. Which was another topic—time, or precisely the manner in which it passes in novels—Vargas Llosa discussed Thursday in his remarks on what it meant to him to discover the significance of technique in literature.

“If we can free ourselves from the spell a well-told story casts on us long enough to conduct an intellectual autopsy of it, we find that time is a completely artificial ingredient,” he said. “Sometimes, time passes very quickly or stands still, dabbling over itself, suggesting the idea of eternity, of paralysis. In other stories, time continually jumps around, skipping over periods, when many things happen that are not told or hardly told.” 

Along with the narrator, time is one of the two “fundamental pillars” in fiction, he said.

MIT Professor of Biology and Nobel laureate Robert Horvitz addressed graduates at UM’s doctoral degree ceremony on Thursday, where he received an honorary Doctor of Science. 

When Horvitz used a common roundworm to discover how healthy cells kill themselves, a finding that has helped reveal the bases of many human diseases, he had no idea his research would eventually be used in laboratories around the world to investigate new approaches to illnesses.

“Our scientific studies involved absolutely fundamental research,” said Horvitz. “True discovery research is interesting. It’s part of an intellectual exercise. Fundamental research leads to insights, with applications that can’t be anticipated.”

From GPS technology derived from the understanding of the theory of relativity to the process of online transactions that are actually made possible by mathematics, “none of these things would be here had it not been for fundamental research,” Horvitz said. “It is the foundation and driver of scientific knowledge.” 

But he noted that such research is not supported by industry. “Fundamental research must be supported outside the private sector by governments, foundations, and philanthropy,” he said. “First-rate fundamental research will be important and benefit humanity, but we can’t know how ahead of time.” He challenged students to support fundamental research by supporting the people who decide how to spend government money. 

Horvitz also issued a challenge to students. Noting that such issues as stem cell research, intelligent design, and climate change often interface with ethics and policy, he called on graduates to be prepared to face the tough issues, to understand them, and “help us as a society to deal with them.” 

And he gave graduates nine pieces of advice: to remember what matters most, which is family, friends and people; to keep learning—“A doctorate degree is the foundation to build on a continuing quest for knowledge,” he said; to use their training in their lives; to realize they are not limited in the field of their degrees—“Many of the word’s best scientists have pursued other interests,” he noted; to not be afraid of doing something new; to work on something important because “it’s no harder than working on something unimportant”; to do what they love; to support young people; and to keep moving.

For Yanet Cordovi, an emergency room nurse at University of Miami Hospital who earned her master’s degree in the School of Nursing and Health Studies’ Family Nurse Practitioner program, simulation has been one of the fundamental pillars of her profession. With the opening of the nursing school’s Simulation Hospital last year, she’s been able to sharpen her clinical skills. “It’s helped prepare us for situations we’ll definitely encounter,” she said. 

Vargas Llosa also told students that when he lived in Paris in the 1960s, writers committed themselves to a cause. But today, the idea of literature as entertainment is firmly entrenched, he explained. “Many young writers think it is naïve and pretentious what in the 60s seemed to us fundamental that literature could be an instrument for changing reality, for influencing history, for awakening the consciousness of readers with respect to political, cultural and moral issues,” Vargas Llosa said. “Anyone who thinks that way today is viewed as old-fashioned, an anomaly. We live in a culture in which the concept of entertainment prevails over everything. The idea of committing to a cause is gradually disappearing.”

For UM students, nothing could be further from the truth, and in his remarks that preceded Vargas Llosa’s, UM President Julio Frenk reminded the audience that the Class of 2018 has helped shape history, taking on the world’s intractable problems.

“In the wake of the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, University of Miami students stepped up to lead our community and refused to stay silent in the face of violence and intimidation,” Frenk said. “These students and the countless young people across the country who are organizing around the issues they care about are an inspiration to me.” 

Frenk told students, “No matter which path you choose, continue to speak your truth, consider what is right and just, and explore how your life and career can serve others.”