Commencement speakers applaud persistence in the face of hardship

The first of three undergraduate ceremonies took place Friday morning. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami
By Robert C. Jones Jr., Michael R. Malone, and Janette Neuwahl Tannen

The first of three undergraduate ceremonies took place Friday morning. Photo: Evan Garcia/University of Miami

Commencement speakers applaud persistence in the face of hardship

By Robert C. Jones Jr., Michael R. Malone, and Janette Neuwahl Tannen
Three honorary degree recipients who know adversity told hundreds of undergraduates at Friday’s commencement ceremonies that their proven ability to overcome obstacles will serve them well.

Their college careers didn’t exactly begin or end under the best circumstances. Most of the more than 2,100 students who crossed the stage at Hard Rock Stadium for their bachelor’s degrees on Friday started college with one eye on their books and the other on the 650-mile-wide monster storm that slammed into South Florida in September of 2017, forcing the University of Miami to remain closed for nearly three weeks.

Then, with college degrees in sight, they faced another unprecedented trial: a global pandemic that disrupted all aspects of life. 

But on Friday, at an outdoor venue that played a critical role in both crises—as a food distribution center ahead of Hurricane Irma, and as a testing and vaccination site for COVID-19—the undergraduates celebrated their success of overcoming obstacles, accepting their diplomas and receiving advice from three honorary degree recipients who understand adversity well.

Few people, though, know more hardship than Gail McGovern, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, who addressed about 650 students from the Miami Herbert Business School and College of Engineering at the last of three undergraduate commencement ceremonies held at Hard Rock on Friday. “You’ve learned how to adapt and how to deal with obstacles in an extremely difficult environment,” said McGovern, whose emergency relief and blood services organization responds to more than 60,000 disasters each year. 

“I suspect many of you discovered that you’re capable of digging deep and doing things you never thought possible,” she continued. “Those skills will serve you well because people and organizations that embrace change are the ones that flourish.” 

Special Report: 2021 Commencement

While President Julio Frenk reminded graduates of many high points—the day the rapper Drake made a surprise visit to campus, and the two times that ESPN College GameDay was on hand before a major football game—he also complimented students for their perseverance through the most challenging of times.

“Living through these experiences has given you the opportunity to learn adaptability and resilience,” Frenk said. “No matter where your paths take you, I can guarantee this: you will continue to use those skills.”

In her address, McGovern noted how the Red Cross had to quickly adapt in the face of the pandemic, pivoting to collect blood in locations like Hard Rock Stadium to facilitate social distancing and housing disaster victims in hotel rooms instead of large shelters to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. 

McGovern, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, also cautioned students to remember that, while having a life plan is acceptable, “life is an off-road adventure with obstacles along the way.” 

“Personally, I didn’t plan to have breast cancer—twice,” said McGovern, who held senior leadership roles at AT&T and Fidelity Personal Investments prior to joining the Red Cross. “I did plan to get pregnant and that never happened. But I’m fully recovered from cancer, I’m stronger, and I’m so grateful for every single day that I lived through it. And my husband and I adopted a baby who is now working at MIT and is a Fulbright Scholar. I’m pretty sure that you didn’t have ‘living through a pandemic’ in your life plan. But here you are, rising above it and ready for the next challenge.” 

In reflecting on his time at the University, student speaker James Lai, who earned his degree in biomedical engineering and is headed to medical school, said the institution provided him opportunities to design and 3D-print nasal swabs for COVID-19 testing and to launch the speaker series What Matters to U. “Because of our determination to bounce back, and our friends, mentors, parents, teachers, and administrators who have helped us along the way,” he said, “each and every one of us is here today and we should be proud.”

In the second undergraduate ceremony of the day, genre-defying musician Ben Folds, who has made some big splashes in his 30-plus-year career—from a national TV appearance to a top-five record—chose to highlight his stumbles, the lessons learned, and the importance of cultivating the courage to stay the course.

“You gotta make an entrance, a splash, but you’ve also got to have the staying power that the ripples represent,” Folds said in a video message from Australia, where he was on tour and settled when the pandemic emerged. “The ripples represent consistency and a pattern of behavior. They emanate outward and come back to us in ways we never dreamed. Trust me that a mountain of failure implies miles of persistence—and be proud of that persistence.”

Standing before a massive musical score and wearing the cap and gown bestowed for his honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, Folds recounted his own short-lived experience at the University to about 650 undergraduates from the School of Architecture, School of Communication, School of Education and Human Development, Frost School of Music, School of Nursing and Health Studies, and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

Faulting himself for getting in a fight, injuring his hand, and flunking his drum recital, he recalled feeling “devastated” when he lost his full music scholarship after just one semester. “I squandered it in an instant, being an idiot and that was it,” he said.

Yet Folds said he learned from his mistakes, persisted, and went on to significant acclaim in the music industry. “I’ve been a master sinker—and I’m still here,” he proclaimed.

He expressed dismay over the current online world, which he said seems to favor those who never admit they’re wrong and view those who do as weak. “It’s an attractive quality to own our mistakes, something reinforced to me from writing hundreds of songs and witnessing peoples’ positive response to honesty.”

Like other speakers, student speaker Abigail Adeleke, who served as Student Government president for 2020-21 and graduated with a B.S. in journalism and psychology, celebrated the graduates for the courage they showed from Hurricane Irma to “the day the world stopped” with the global pandemic.

“Yet we have made it through the storms and faced the pressure,” Adeleke said. “We became the best of beings because we simply had the courage to see ourselves as unshakeable diamonds.”

In the first undergraduate ceremony of the day, Freeman A. Hrabowski, III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and a child crusader for civil rights, noted that such influential thinkers as Aristotle, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote about how people flourish with adversity.

And he assured the students that their perseverance in earning their degrees between two traumatic bookends bodes well for their futures.

“You may have been to a dark period, this last year especially, and yet, you have made it through and there is the point: You made it through,” Hrabowski told about 665 students from the College of Arts and Sciences and Division of Continuing and International Education in a video message from Baltimore County. “Some of you’ve heard about the greatest generation. We use that term to talk about Americans born during the Great Depression. Years from now, I truly believe you will be called part of this greatest generation because of what you’ve been able to do and how you’ve done it.”

Hrabowski, who also received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, provided a unique viewpoint on resilience. He grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and after hearing Martin Luther King Jr. speak at his church—where the minister said the civil rights movement could pave the way for Black children like him to attend better schools—he convinced his parents to let him join King’s 1963 Children’s Crusade for civil rights. 

At the march, police officers sprayed the children with water hoses, hit them with batons, and threw them in jail—where the 12-years-old Hrabowski spent five days. But, he said, the harrowing experience fortified him. He has devoted most of his career to the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, building it into a research powerhouse and one of the nation’s top producers of Black undergraduates who go on to earn doctorates in the natural sciences and engineering.

"When I was a little kid in jail I could never have imagined that one day I would be president of a university with students from over 100 countries,” he said. “I didn’t imagine that we would come to a time in our society when people from different groups from all over the world would come together to study and know each other. And that is what is possible. So, I am saying to you, ‘Dream big.’ Don’t let anything limit your thinking about who you can become.”

Student speaker Robert Shore, a Stamps Scholar and Foote Fellow who majored in economics, political science, and Chinese studies, also praised his classmates for adapting to unpredictable and unprecedented challenges. Expressing his gratitude that the University enables students to forge their own paths, as he did by creating an independent third major, he urged fellow students to do the same in the future.

“Be confident in your own abilities and chart your own path, because that is how we really soar,” Shore said, drawing parallels to the heartiness of the University’s mascot, the ibis Sebastian. 

Summing up the sentiments of many graduates, Mallory Blum, who earned a bachelor’s in psychology with an anthropology minor at the morning ceremony, said she treasures commencement as much as her time at the University.

“At UM, there have been high points, low points, twists, turns, and loops, but I’ve had the time of my life and even in the hardest times, I fought hard, and I thrived,” Blum said. “Today I’m graduating with honors while wearing multiple stoles and cords that represent my involvements—and I’m happier than ever.”