Finding happiness through service to others

Students participate in the 2019 Fall Commencement at the Watsco Center. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami
By Michael R. Malone and Maya Bell

Students participate in the 2019 Fall Commencement at the Watsco Center. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

Finding happiness through service to others

By Michael R. Malone and Maya Bell
A Fall Commencement speaker encourages graduates to “drink in the eternal foundation of happiness” by pursuing a life committed to serving others.

At the Watsco Center Thursday morning, the commencement speaker for the University of Miami undergraduate ceremony urged students to be compassionate, “sacrifice your own gratification for the benefit of others,” and work to build communities that benefit the common good.

“Make the decision to be truly and deeply happy,” Dr. Rodrigo Guerrero-Velasco encouraged the more than 560 students at the ceremony attended by thousands of friends and family.

Guerrero-Velasco’s own life as an epidemiologist, academician, and policy-maker has embodied his message.

Born and raised in Cali, Colombia, Guerrero-Velasco pursued his three passions of medicine, academia, and social development to forge a remarkable career that changed – and saved – countless lives. For his devotion to identify innovative solutions for social problems, University of Miami President Julio Frenk conferred on Guerrero-Velasco an honorary Doctor of Science degree.  

In his address, Guerrero-Velasco called on the students to dream for more than the success and happiness they might attain from professional and personal development.

“Success, be it economic, political or social, is no settlement for happiness, which is the deep satisfaction of finding meaning and purpose in life,” he said.

In the afternoon graduate degree ceremony for doctoral and master’s students, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation to promote tolerance, religious freedom, and human rights around the world, told the 560 graduates to "never give up, have faith, and do not be deterred by obstacles and hardship that may come your way."

"Search beyond your immediate comfort zone of your particular field or your monetary desires," said Schneier, who was presented with an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. "With wisdom and heart, make a commitment of carrying the torch of freedom forward for peace and unity in diversity. It is your turn to give back—just as I gave back to the blessed United States.”

During the graduate degree ceremony, Frenk also honored Patti and Allan Herbert with the President's Medal for their lifelong commitment and "deeply personal partnership with the University.” Allan Herbert, a member of the University's Board of Trustees, and Patti met and fell in love as students while earning their business degrees in the 1950s.

Recognizing their lifetime of giving, the University this fall named the business school in their honor: The University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, or Miami Herbert Business School, for short. The Herberts join an illustrious group of past President’s Medal recipients who have championed the University, the community, or noble endeavors that have enriched our world.

In the morning session, Guerrero-Velasco cited the import of large private foundations – part of the “Giving Pledge” initiative – to promote human and social development and to fight against widespread poverty through philanthropy, but emphasized that the impact of giving is not measured in dollars “because life offers us daily opportunities” to be of service in a myriad of ways.

To highlight this truism, Guerrero-Velasco quoted from Chilean Gabriela Mistral’s poem “The Pleasure of Serving”:

But above all there is the beautiful,

The immense happiness of serving.

How sad the world would be if all was already done.

If there was no rosebush to plant,

No enterprise to undertake.

Do not limit yourself to easy tasks

Serving is not a labor for inferior beings

For Denise Aguilar Prats, who graduated with her Bachelor’s of Fine Arts degree, Guerrero-Velasco’s message to serve had special resonance.

Prats worked full-time at the University for 20 years, raised her four children and ensured they went on to college. She took classes at night for five years, retired in 2016, and then – it was her turn to pursue her dream and finish her degree.

“This has been a lifelong journey,” she said, explaining that back in 1966, when she was only 17, she was awarded an art scholarship to Pratt Institute in New York but wasn’t able to attend. “It’s been such a gift and a blessing, and now I want to pay it forward.”

She plans to “take a break and paint,” then to take classes at the U in sign language so that she can share art with deaf students. Her own hearing impairment prompts her to listen and see uniquely – her oil-on-canvas painting focuses on capturing reflective light.    

As part of her studies, Prats won several student competitions and her 16-piece graduating project, “Reaching for the Light,” is on display at the Rainbow Building on campus and several other pieces are exhibited at the Lowe Art Museum.

Maria Carro, who earned a degree in criminology with minors in biology and psychology, will celebrate later today with her parents who flew in from her native Puerto Rico. Carro transferred to the University two years ago – just two months before Hurricane Irma devastated the island territory.

“I love Miami and I love the University,” she said. “Everyone is from everywhere – there’s so much diversity in culture and language.” Carro hopes to apply for the accelerated nursing program offered at the School of Nursing and Health Studies.

Jonathan Fernandez transferred to the University just over three years ago and Thursday earned a degree in advertising. Born and raised in Miami, a few years ago he established his own video company which he’s looking forward to expanding. He enjoyed being part of the Federación de Estudiantes Cubanos (FEC), the Cuban-American student group on campus.

“It’s been a wonderful experience here,” he said.

Sharon Danquah, a broadcast journalism major from Cincinnati, Ohio, said her time at the U has been amazing. “I’ve learned so much and I’ve met so many incredible people," she said.

Sagar Sharma, a double major in broadcast journalism and political science, noted that he initially didn't know how his college experience was going to turn out, saying he was "a little reticent" his freshman year. 

"I was a little scared being from Chicago and it being my first time away from home," he said. "It was an arduous journey but it’s over now and reflecting on it, it was one of the best decisions I ever made. It’s a wonderful school and I tell anyone who wants to come here, to come.”

Natalia Freitas Cordeiro, a microbiology and immunology major who graduated in just three and a half years, said she is a little jittery about the future, but excited too. During her undergraduate years, Freitas Cordeiro spent a few semesters doing malaria research at the Miller School of Medicine and is certified as a phlebotomist, so she is actively looking for a position in the health care industry and plans to apply for graduate school to become a physician assistant in the future.

“I’m a little nervous for the next step, but nonetheless thankful for the journey that UM has been,” she said. “It’s been three and a half years full of growth and happiness. I don’t know what the next step is yet, but I’m ready.”

College of Engineering graduates and friends Cecilia Poole, Nakiya Clausell and Kamil Lawal were taking photos together outside the Watsco Center. Clausell and Poole, who are also best friends, are taking a trip together to Asia after graduation and then they will decide on jobs.

“I feel so relieved that all the hard work over the last four years has finally culminated into this achievement,” said Poole, a biomedical engineering major. “I’m so excited to use all the stuff I’ve learned and all the experience I’ve had at UM in my career.”

Clausell, an environmental engineering major, hopes to use her knowledge to find a job abroad, hopefully working in water quality and management.

“It feels surreal,” she said about graduating. “I figured this day would come, but it goes so fast, I’m just trying to take it all in.”

"Dream, reach high, and make every day count"

In the graduate degree ceremony, Rabbi Schneier noted that on this very day in 1945 he was desperately eluding the haters in Nazi-occupied Hungary who would deliver him to one of the death camps where six million other Jews were murdered. 

“It was a day of persecution, hunger, dehumanization,” Schneier said. “I didn’t think I’d live to see another day.” 

But thanks to the courage of Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice consul in Budapest who issued protective papers to Jews in hiding, Schneier survived. He lived to return to his hometown of Vienna, Austria, where as an 8-year-old, his friends "became ardent members of the Nazi Youth Movement" and he watched “jubilant police and firemen help in the burning of my synagogue.” 

He lived to fulfill the vow he made as a teenager, during the darkest days of World War II, to dedicate his life to ensuring that “no people would endure the pain and suffering brought about by man’s inhumanity during the Holocaust.” In addition to being founder of the interfaith Appeal of Conscience Foundation, Schneier is senior rabbi at New York City’s historic Park East Synagogue. 

He shared with students his “copyright prescription” for life’s ups and downs—his three Ps: prayer, perseverance, and patience.

“I experienced the best and the beast of man: the tyrants who destroyed life, the hero diplomats who saved life,” Schneier, who became known as the rabbi/diplomat, told the graduate students who hailed from all of the University’s schools and colleges. “My message to you: Never give up, have faith, do not be deterred by obstacles and hardship that may come your way.

"Don’t be afraid to take risks. Be deliberate about choosing courage. Dream, reach high, and make every day count. Pick a cause and pursue it with purpose.”

Ashley A. Williams and Janette Neuwahl Tannen contributed to this report.