Academics People and Community

Fall Commencement: ‘This is the beginning of your new mountain to climb’

More than 1,100 graduates were conferred degrees during three ceremonies at the Watsco Center on Friday. Speakers shared experiences of their past and pointed out to the graduates that they are our hope for the future.
The Fall 2021 commencement ceremony
Commencement exercises were held Friday, Dec. 17 at the Watsco Center on the Coral Gables Campus. Photo: TJ Lievonen/University of Miami

In a series of Fall Commencement ceremonies Friday at the University of Miami, extraordinary individuals who have impacted the worlds of music, law, and education shared their experiences, provided nuggets of inspiration and vision, and called on the graduates to go forward and make a difference on all levels. 

Esteemed conductor and composer Gerard Schwarz got it all started in the first ceremony Friday morning, followed by Marilyn Holifield, a prolific litigator who represents corporate clients for the Miami-based international law firm Holland & Knight LLP, in the afternoon. John Sexton, president emeritus of New York University, addressed graduating students in the evening ceremony. With family and friends looking on and more tuning in via remote livestreams, more than 1,100 graduates received their diplomas as part of the three exercises. 

Schwarz told the graduates and their families in attendance at the University’s Watsco Center that his five decades of success in the music field was due in large part to his willingness to “climb mountains” and to apply principles gleaned from his parents and mentors. 

“This is the beginning of your new mountain to climb, and these mountains that we climb will last forever. Dream big, trust your aspirations, and follow your individual knowledge to guide you in your future,” said Schwarz, who joined the University’s faculty in 2019 and was honored Friday with a President’s Medal for “a lifetime of bringing extraordinary music to the world.”

The music director, recording artist, and educator addressed 493 undergraduates and graduate students receiving diplomas from the Graduate School, School of Architecture, Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, School of Communication, School of Education and Human Development, and Phillip and Patricia Frost School of Music. 

Schwarz offered students a list of principles he deemed “crucial for success in life,” principles drawn from his own life and from his parents who left Europe in the wake of rising Nazism to start life anew in New York. The principles included applying unique individual intelligence, working hard, saying “yes” to life whenever possible, and keeping a positive attitude. 

“We all need to take advantage of who we are and what we have to offer,” Schwarz said. “Think more about what you’re able to do and not so much about what you can’t.” 

A believer in the benefits of hard work, he applied the maxim often used in the music world: To be successful is 10 percent talent and 90 percent hard work. 

He recounted that he put in copious amount of time and focused on becoming a great trumpeter, one of many mountains that he challenged himself to climb over the course of his life. 

He was 14 at the time, already a rising star as a trumpeter, yet he realized that he was limited by some fundamental techniques. He followed the advice of a mentor who urged him to change his embouchure [a horn player’s mouthing technique] if he truly wanted to accomplish his musical goals. 

It took nine months of enduring criticism—“you used to sound wonderful, but now you sound terrible”—but he persevered to reach his goal. 

“The hard work paid off, and once I got beyond that tunnel vision, the whole world opened up,” Schwarz said. 

In his own life and based on this belief that it is best to make momentous decisions in life when “things are going great,” he recounted the decision to climb another mountain. 

He had achieved his life dream and was in his fourth year playing trumpet with the New York Philharmonic. After a highly successful concert in Moscow, he took a late-night walk in Red Square to contemplate his desire to leave the orchestra to become a conductor. 

His colleagues were astounded by his decision. “Why would you leave being one of the great trumpet players to become a lousy conductor?” they queried. 

“Well, I had no intention of becoming a lousy conductor,” noted Schwarz, who went on to spend 26 years leading the Seattle Symphony and to conduct orchestras around the world to great acclaim. 

President Julio Frenk opened the ceremony and celebrated the graduates for their “perseverance, patience, and partnership” of the challenging past couple years. 

He emphasized the resiliency inherent to the University’s mascot—the ibis—and recalled his grandmother’s definition of the word. 

“Resiliency is not bouncing back to the place where you were, but instead learning from every painful experience so you can transform adversity into strength,” Frenk said. “Congratulations graduates, you have grown so much. You have persevered and you have finished.” 

In addition to presenting Schwarz with the President’s Medal, Frenk announced the creation of the Schwarz Benaroya Endowed Chair in Conducting and Orchestral Activities at the Frost School of Music that will support the University’s Ever Brighter Campaign for the Next Century.

Sebastian Ordonez, who earned his Master of Science in Finance, said Schwarz provided motivation. "I thought the speech was great and hearing all his experience about why you should say ‘yes,’ ’’ he said. "His speech really inspired me to always take opportunities as they come.”

Daniella Barton, a graduate student who earned her master’s degree in health administration, said she was thankful. “I’m feeling a lot of feelings,” she said. “It took so much for me to get here today. So, I feel relieved and excited. The level of stress that’s off me is so nice. I’m grateful to be here and I’m glad that I made it."

At Friday’s second commencement ceremony—for students graduating from the Graduate School, School of Law, College of Engineering, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, and the School of Nursing and Health Studies—Holifield, a trailblazing lawyer, civil rights activist, and University of Miami Board of Trustees member, shared some of her wisdom with the graduates. 

She was the first Black woman to become a partner at Holland & Knight, an international law firm based in Miami. She is well known for her professionalism and is a widely admired litigator who represents corporate clients in employment and non-compete and intellectual property matters. 

But Holifield has broken barriers throughout her life, largely because of the courage and determination she learned from her parents. 

Inspired by the civil rights movement, Holifield decided she would be one of the first three students to integrate Leon High School in her hometown of Tallahassee. Despite her desire to create a path toward better educational opportunity for Black students, her last two years of high school were brutal. At Leon High, Holifield endured students calling her the N-word daily and even had eggs hurled at her one morning as she stepped off the bus. At the time, she said she felt both weak and strong. 

“Weak, because that was the only time that white hatred made tears rush down my face,” said Holifield, a graduate of Harvard Law School. “But strong because their hatred fired up my inner spirit and kicked away any notion of surrender.” 

Yet, Holifield told graduates, the power of imagination has often helped her to visualize a better future. She believes it often catalyzes some of the most powerful ideas in society. 

“The imagination of researchers powered the triumph of science over COVID-19 and produced life-saving vaccines and treatments,” she said. “And you and I are here today because our imaginations fueled ideas that enabled us to conquer detours, delays, distress, and disappointment brought on by the pandemic.”

Holifield spoke of her mother’s vision that led to the establishment of the first licensed practical nurse training program for Black students in Tallahassee. She mentioned her brother Bishop’s aspiration to resurrect the law school at Florida A&M University, which lost its funding in 1965. The law school reopened in 2005, paving the way for more Black lawyers to be educated in the Sunshine State. 

In addition, Holifield spoke to the graduates about her experience as a student at Swarthmore College, where she joined a group of Black students to stage an eight-day sit-in at the admissions office to encourage equal treatment for Black students. She also spoke about her current passion: supporting art from the African diaspora and working to create a museum

“[My] little-known stories reveal that ordinary people far removed from the limelight but equipped with imagination … can make transformative positive change,” she said. “Graduates, let your imagination inspire the courage to speak truth when voices of the weak and left-out are silenced; to imagine solutions when the world around you seems upside down; and to imagine paths to a more perfect union that affirms the humanity of all of us.” 

Some graduates were moved and inspired by Holifield’s address, saying her words will remain with them for many years. 

“Holifield was amazing,” said Lalique Edwards, who received her bachelor’s degree in nursing. “She touched on some really good points, especially with everything that is going on—it was so fitting. I’m so happy UM chose such a diverse speaker to address things that were so important.” 

Kruti Patel, who received her Bachelor of Science in Public Health, said she was immensely motivated by Holifield. Patel said she will keep Holifield’s words of encouragement in mind as she pursues an advanced degree in health administration. 

In the final ceremony of the day, Sexton, president emeritus of New York University, shared his recollections when he was in high school. 

There were two brilliant teachers, he recalled, but with very different world views—one embracing difference and diversity, the other, exclusion and solipsism—who were influential. 

Sexton was just a high schooler when he encountered them back in 1956. Friday, he relived that experience for the hundreds of graduates accepting newly minted degrees at the 5:30 p.m. ceremony from the Graduate School, the College of Arts and Sciences, and the Division of Continuing and International Education. 

The teacher everyone knew simply as Charlie had urged his students to “play another octave of the piano,” Sexton said. 

“If there’s notes you haven’t touched, if there’s a food you haven’t tasted, if there’s a music you haven’t heard, if there’s a prayer you haven’t heard, if there’s a kind of person you’ve never met, if there’s a place you can get to that you haven’t been, as long as its legal and moral, do it once,” Sexton said of the lecture Charlie once gave. 

But that message would be at odds with the one Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan would tell Sexton and his classmates. In the same classroom where Charlie touted heterogeneity, Berrigan wrote on the blackboard “extra Ecclesiam nulla salus—outside the Church there is no salvation.” 

“That was the closed, exclusive, triumphalist world of Brooklyn-Irish Catholicism in 1956,” Sexton told the graduates, minutes after he received a Doctor of Humane Letters in recognition of his leadership and for his vision in using the power of education to expand borders, minds, and humanity.

That narrow view, however, would give way to the ecumenical movement, Sexton said, “so that 60 years later I could be comfortable . . . being in Abu Dhabi for the Year of Tolerance, sponsored by a Muslim government in which the Pope participated and 25 faith traditions from around the world were represented—all rejoicing in seeing the magnificence of creativity and transcendence through the different facets of the diamond of the intellective we have been given and each learning from the other.”

Sexton lamented the politics of today, saying that it is more dogmatic than Berrigan’s statement some 60 years ago. But if change could occur in something as fundamental as religion, “then sure enough we can do it on anything. And that’s where I see the challenge of our century, for our country, for our world,” he said.

“As the world shrinks, and it is shrinking, and as people become unavoidably interconnected, how do we react? Do we embrace difference as a great gift? Do we encourage the virtue of curiosity, which leads to knowledge, which leads to understanding and the joy that comes from, as Charlie said, playing additional octaves of the piano?” Sexton asked. “Your education here in this city, the fulcrum of so much in our world, and at this university, which embraces its role as the intellectual epicenter of this central place we call Miami, puts you in a position to actualize the hope that we could replicate in the secular domain what I’ve seen happen over the last 60 years.”  

One of the graduates who took Sexton’s words to heart was Jailah Williams, who received a Bachelor of Arts in Criminology from the College of Arts and Sciences. She described her experience at the University as life changing.

“My time at the University equipped me with the skills needed to lead, to inspire, and to give back,” Williams said. “I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by a strong network of people that support and empower me to reach the pinnacle of my potential. For that, I am forever indebted to them and this university.”

For the in-person ceremonies, the University rigorously observed all health protocols that included mandatory masks and no handshaking, among others. Post-ceremony receptions were also canceled.

— Ashley A. Williams contributed to this report.