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Remarks at University of Miami Commencement

Coral Gables, Florida

As delivered.

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to celebrate your achievements and to send you on your way into the world that awaits you. But even as we honor you, let us begin by recognizing that no one does this alone. Let us thank the families that supported and encouraged you, the teachers who inspired and challenged you, and the university that created the opportunity for you to expand your minds and pursue your dreams.

The 632 of you receiving your degrees in this ceremony represent achievement in a wide range of fields in humanities, social sciences, STEM, engineering and nursing. Each of you has chosen to seek advanced work in a field of specialization beyond what is often called the “first”—or bachelor’s degree. Some of you have worked for today’s degree for many years. The average time to degree for Ph.Ds in the humanities nationally is currently about 7 years. Others of you receiving masters’ degrees have been here for a much shorter time. But all of you will for the rest of your lives proudly hold a U of M degree. And all of you will carry the imprint of this place on your lives in ways that extend beyond your enhanced expertise in the field you have studied.

For the next few minutes I want to talk about what that entails—what I hope you will take with you from your time here in this special place, in what the UM mission statement describes as “a global university” with a “hemispheric strategy,” “a bridge across the Americas to the rest of the world,” “an exemplary university offering a model to society”—all those things that make up what you affectionately know as the U [do the sign here].

As the highly educated people you are, you will lead lives of influence and impact. It is my hope that your years here at UM will have shaped you to use that influence to serve others in ways that grow out of your experience in this unique community.

Today each of you receives an advanced degree acknowledging specialized work in your particular field of endeavor. One of you has written a PhD thesis on preventing bullying, violence and suicide among bisexual adolescents; one of you has studied grief among caregivers of cancer patients; one of you is a writer receiving an MFA who explores the complexities of the Puerto Rican and Polish communities that shaped him; one of you is a philosopher who has studied offensive uses of language; one of you has written about Argentine music; another explores our ethical obligations to animals. Across these varied areas of endeavor you have all committed yourselves to the importance of knowledge and the nurturing of expertise. Today in the United States only 9.3% of adults over 25 have a masters’ degree and only 2% a doctoral degree. You are not just specialized; you are special. And you have special responsibilities. By devoting yourself to the work that brings you a diploma today, you have affirmed your belief in learning, in the life of the mind and the pursuit of truth as a means to build a better life and a better society. And you have affirmed your belief in the power of education. I ask that you continue to defend these commitments in the world beyond UM. Research, learning, knowledge, critical thinking, facts—We have seen that we cannot take their importance for granted. As educators and the educated—as those who have pursued learning and understand its significance—it is our special responsibility not just to defend these values but to advance and enhance their influence. And it is our responsibility to commit ourselves to making access to the kind of education we have been privileged to enjoy more widely available to those whose lives it can transform. I have often quoted the inspiring and memorable words of early 20th century Civil Rights activist Nannie Helen Burroughs and let me do so again: “Education is democracy’s life insurance.” As its beneficiaries, we must be its defenders and its advocates.

As I stand here before you, I can see with my own eyes another important dimension of your time here at UM. You have been part of an extraordinarily diverse community—one that includes and celebrates many sorts of difference as foundational to its educational goals. Differences of race, of ethnicity, of religion, of financial circumstances, of political viewpoint, of sexual orientation and gender identity. Differences of national origin—I understand you represent 35 countries. The opportunity to learn from one another, from interacting with people different from yourself has been an essential component of what you have learned here at UM.

And you have lived these past years in one of the most diverse and dynamic cities on the planet—the US city known as the capital of Latin America, a city proud to think of itself not as a melting pot but a multicultural mosaic; a global city where almost 3/4s of its residents speak a language other than English at home. This is a community where you cannot walk outside for 20 feet without hearing 2 and often 3 or 4 different languages. It is a place where gearing up for a long night in the lab is more likely to involve a Cafecito and a croqueta than a Red Bull. You have learned from this diversity both within and beyond the classroom. You are prepared—positioned—to help the world beyond this university’s walls benefit as you have from the kaleidoscope of human identities and cultures that enrich our lives. You are all skilled in generating the energy unleashed by cultural translation. You build on your experiences beyond the classroom or lab to enhance your intellectual experience and, in turn, use the knowledge and expertise you gain there to serve the wider community and the world. Having lived in this global crossroads, you see beyond national borders; you have experienced our global interdependence.

Perhaps that interdependence was most forcefully illustrated for you nearly two years ago now when Hurricane Irma demonstrated her disregard for borders as she swept across Caribbean nations, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and South Florida. She closed UM for more than 3 weeks, even as her impact here thankfully proved less devastating than originally feared. She left not just destruction but some important lessons in her wake. Let me mention two of those lessons that I think are worth taking with you as you graduate today.

The first is the power of nature and the fragility of what we too often take for granted about our planet. It would be difficult to live in South Florida and not develop a kind of awe and humility in face of both nature’s wonders and its terrors. It would be hard to spend time here, to see sunny day flooding in Miami Beach or seagrass meadows disappearing in Biscayne Bay and not believe in climate change. It would be hard to learn of dead manatees found stuffed with plastic bags and bottles and not care about pollution and worry about biodiversity. I hope you will take from your time here a deep awareness of the way humans are interdependent not just with one another across the globe but with our natural environment. Here at UM you have lived this; you know it now in both your heads and your hearts. I hope as you leave this place you will make that knowledge a central part of your lives. And I hope you will share it with those who did not have the opportunity to be here and learn it firsthand.

I said I wanted to mention 2 lessons from Irma. The second is a defining attribute of being a Cane. Your mascot is the ibis, the symbol of resilience. There are few more important strengths in a human life. When Irma threatened, the university and all of you prepared, working together as a community, using your knowledge of science, medicine, public health, communications, organizational behavior—expertise from across the university. And then you repaired and restored, supporting one another, depending on one another, and determined to emerge stronger. Every job, every career, every life has its hurricanes. But you have weathered storms and are ready for those that inevitably lie ahead.

As you leave UM to take up your work as nurses, engineers, teachers, scholars, scientific researchers, writers, caregivers, remember that you have learned much more here than what was required to qualify for your degrees. Remember the broader responsibilities that the learning and education you have received entail and share that commitment with the world. Remember that facts and truth matter, and must undergird any just and enduring society. Remember the human connections and contrasts that created the context in which learning thrived. And remember the combination of respect and resilience that the natural environment has required of you and let those qualities serve as touchstones in all you do in life. Remember to be Canes even as you leave this place to serve and uplift a wider world. Congratulations and godspeed.