Speakers celebrated undergraduates’ abilities to excel despite challenges

Students wave to their families during Friday morning's undergraduate ceremonies. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami
By Janette Neuwahl Tannen, Michael R. Malone, and Ashley A. Williams

Students wave to their families during Friday morning's undergraduate ceremonies. Photo: Mike Montero/University of Miami

Speakers celebrated undergraduates’ abilities to excel despite challenges

By Janette Neuwahl Tannen, Michael R. Malone, and Ashley A. Williams
During undergraduate commencement exercises on Friday, nearly every speaker noted how the students contended with and endured the difficulties of the pandemic, which equipped them with resilience to forge new careers and chase dreams with renewed passion.

Sporting ornately decorated caps and big smiles, shedding tears, and waving to their families, University of Miami undergraduates filled the Watsco Center on Friday for three commencement ceremonies that featured the usual pomp and circumstance and pearls of wisdom that offered insight from distinguished speakers and University leaders. 

It was especially triumphant because the graduates endured a major interruption to their college experience during sophomore year, when they did not return to campus after spring break in 2020. Instead, they quickly pivoted to remote learning. Although the campus reopened the next fall—with the guidance of University President Julio Frenk, who put in place strict safety protocols to make it possible—the Class of 2022 weathered frequent COVID-19 testing, mandatory mask policies, and a host of other changes dictated by the pandemic.

“As you walked across the stage, many of you thanked me for opening campus and keeping you safe,” Frenk said. “But today, I thank you because everything we did during those two years, and everything that happened, was thanks to your ability to make short-term sacrifices all for a higher purpose, which was your education.”

Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology held the speaker reigns for the first ceremony, followed by Paula Kerger, president and chief executive officer of PBS, and Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management and vice chair of the University’s Board of Trustees.

Taylor, who wrapped up a full day of commencement ceremonies as the evening speaker, told the more than 750 graduates from the Miami Herbert Business School and College of Engineering that to succeed in the next chapter of their lives they need to close the empathy gap and “live a full life—whatever that means to you.” 

The author of bestselling books on human resources detailed the striking changes that the world has seen since May 1989, when he graduated with honors from the University with a bachelor’s degree in communication. 

“Now, more than ever, our lives will be lived in a realm of data, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and machine learning,” said Taylor. “Yet, having dedicated most of my professional life to human resources, I want to issue a word of caution. Machines, regardless of their speed, efficiency, or capacity, can never adequately substitute for the greatest computer ever created—the human mind.” 

Taylor, who most recently made a generous gift honoring the legacy of the University’s first Black graduates, told the new graduates that he really needs them to ponder ways to bring empathy back into the workplace and their everyday lives. He proposed that each graduate return to the times in the United States when societies—and politics—did not celebrate the individual above all. 

“Empathy is a muscle—a muscle that we’ve allowed to atrophy—we need to strengthen it,” said Taylor. “And it’s your generation’s responsibility to strengthen empathy in our society to close the gap and work the muscle.”

The self-proclaimed data nerd went on to emphasize new research on Gen Z, sharing that 83 percent say they would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a higher salary. And the same 83 percent would consider leaving their current organization for a similar role at a more empathetic organization. 

“As you graduate Class of 2022, lets approach every problem and every challenge by putting the ‘we’ before ‘me,’ ” Taylor said, encouraging the graduates.

He concluded his address by sharing a note from an 85-year-old woman who is dealing with declining health. “If I had to live my life over again, I’d try to make more mistakes the next time. I wouldn’t try to be so perfect,” he read to the audience. “We all have these perfection fetishes. What difference does it make if you could let people know you’re imperfect? They then identify with you—nobody can identify with perfection.’’ 

The midday commencement speaker, Kerger, is the longest serving president at PBS and the longest-serving female president in broadcasting history. She told the almost 800 graduates—whose majors included architecture, communication, education and human development, nursing and health studies, music, and marine and atmospheric science—that “never in a million years” did she imagine in her own college days that her path would lead to such a dream job.

The CEO recounted that she felt “an enormous sense of pressure” at her own graduation because she had no clear career goals in mind. 

“So, if you’re worried that you haven’t mapped out your whole career, my message to you is simple—you’re going to be just fine,” Kerger said. “The truth is, very few people have it all figured out, and anyone who thinks they do is only closing themselves off to the possibility of a more meaningful and purpose-filled life.” 

Kerger told the graduates that the same well-rounded university education that served her—providing different perspectives, expanding worldviews, and preparing her for the twists and turns of life and career—would serve them as well as they venture forward. 

She highlighted that her own career path was serpentine—switching majors in college from science to humanities after she flunked out of organic chemistry, then after graduation scouring classified ads until serendipitously landing her first job at UNICEF. 

“It was there that I discovered my north star—a passion for nonprofit work and a desire to make a difference,” Kerger said. 

Sixteen years later, she interviewed for her current position, where for the past 15 years she has overseen the public broadcasting network’s digital transformation. “And I couldn’t help but marvel at the unexpected series of events that led me there,” she noted. 

According to Kerger, the undergraduates’ training at the University—and the extraordinary resilience they have demonstrated throughout the pandemic—has provided the conditions they need to succeed in a world where the only constant is change. 

“You have learned to ask the right questions and to question assumptions and to recognize that sometimes you need to turn a challenge on its head to come to a solution,” the executive said. 

The PBS president said that she finds inspiration in the fire and determination of the emerging generation. “You are already leaving your mark on the world—shaking things up, raising your voices, and banding together to make change happen,” Kerger pointed out. “You are also the most connected generation in history, using social media and technology to engage with one another and with the broader world.” 

She urged the graduates to especially heed one piece of advice. 

“Find your authentic voice—the one that whispers to you about what you were put on this earth to do, the voice that is innately and inherently yours, not an imitation of someone else. If it doesn’t come to you immediately, don’t worry. It will happen as long as you push yourself out of your comfort zone, both professionally and personally,” she advised. 

She exhorted the new grads to pay attention to what truly makes them sing. 

“And when you find your voice, use it not just for the advancement of your career, but also for the betterment of your community,” Kerger encouraged. 

For her dynamic leadership of the past 15 years at the helm of a powerhouse media organization which provides thought-provoking content that educates, empowers, inspires, and entertains, Paula Kerger was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, degree. 

In the morning ceremony, nearly 700 undergraduates from the College of Arts and Sciences and the Division of Continuing and International Education heard student speaker Ishaan Chatterjee note that he and his cohorts endured a decade worth of change in two years. It was the first spring graduation exercises at the Watsco Center since 2019. The morning ceremony also revealed one of the few female Sebastian the Ibis mascots. Madison Clinger was the last graduate to receive her diploma and wore the signature ibis feet as she greeted Frenk, then led students in an impromptu C-A-N-E-S cheer. 

Throughout the ceremonies, University leaders and speakers emphasized that the students’ resilience amid the upheaval will prepare them for the rest of their lives. 

Reif of MIT also was honored with a Doctor of Humane Letters, honoris causa, for his ambitious, inclusive, and forward-thinking leadership. 

He told students about his unlikely journey from a small town in Venezuela to become the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post he has now held for 10 years. Reif’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled to South America from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before the Nazi regime took over. They did not have much education or money. But the couple valued education and made sure to instill a respect for knowledge in their four sons. 

“I remember my father telling me when I was little ‘When you have to leave in a hurry, education is all you can take with you,’ ” he said. “I’ve carried that lesson with me my entire life.” 

Because the family needed extra income, his two older brothers worked to support the family. But when Reif’s brother Isaac decided to go to high school, Reif did too. He also decided to follow his brother’s footsteps again, to college and then graduate school in the United States—where both learned English. The two were able to become college professors in the U.S. Reif said his brother’s example showed the importance of being responsible, even if you are unaware that others are watching. 

“As you begin your careers, graduate studies, or other endeavors, you never know who may be paying attention to what you do—siblings, cousins, co-workers, or even people you don’t know,” said Reif, a distinguished electrical engineer. “Being a role model does not mean you have to be perfect. What it means is this: whatever you accomplish serves to show others what is possible. It inspires them to dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.” 

He urged graduates to leverage the knowledge they have gained at the University to improve the world. 

“Those of us who have the good fortune to earn a university degree, have a responsibility to use what we have learned to build something new, to fix something that is broken, to heal someone that is sick, and to make a new product or design a better solution to have a positive impact,” he said. “Your University of Miami education is a special passport you will carry with you. It has no expiration date, and it will give you access to amazing opportunities, fascinating people, and enduring sense of possibility.”

Like Reif, Chatterjee was also encouraged to prioritize his education by a family member. His grandfather grew up in the streets of India, where he and his mother scraped by without much. Unable to afford school, Chatterjee’s grandfather would sit outside a classroom window every day and listen to lessons. One day, when the teacher discovered him outside during her break, she mistook him for a student skipping class and ushered him back into the classroom. It would pave the way for his grandfather to attend college.

“I like to dedicate this speech to my late grandfather and to anyone who has had to fight for an education, whether it is underprivileged youth in a war-torn impoverished nation—such as Ukraine—first-generation college students, or those fighting for their education across the world,” said Chatterjee, a microbiology and immunology major. “Thank you to the University of Miami for taking a chance on me.”