I’ll admit it: The holiday season snuck up on me this year. I’m unprepared. I didn’t plan well or in advance, given my schedule now that I’m back full time at the University. My anxiety was getting the better of me as I drove to Crisler Arena last Sunday for winter commencement. I was impatient about an afternoon of ceremonial events when my seasonal “to do” list kept scrolling through my head.
But as I entered the “robing room,” where the platform party dons academic regalia before the processional march, I found myself caught up in the moment. Faculty, deans and other University leaders joined the student presenters who would be our guests on stage. Each participant wears a cap, gown and hood representing his or her alma mater and discipline—it is an impressive mix of bright colors and dramatic styles. The ritual signals the anticipation and the excitement of what’s to come.
Once on stage, I had a panoramic view of the graduates and their families. Several thousand smiles, tears of pride, sighs of accomplishment—a mix of celebration and some anxious worry about an unknown future floated in the air. By this time, I was wholly in the moment. Graduating senior and opera major Michael Martin delivered such a gorgeous rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” it brought tears to my eyes. The student speaker was a native of Dexter, just ten miles down the road from Ann Arbor. LSA senior Anthony McCoy Jr.’s passion for the University where so many in his family have attended, and his pride in following their tradition, was palpable.
But for me, the most memorable aspect of this year’s winter commencement was the two women sharing the stage as primary speakers: honorary degree recipient Jill Abramson, first female editor of the New York Times, and Mary Sue Coleman, the first female president of the University of Michigan. Barrier breakers and thought leaders, these two women model success that could be achieved only through working harder than everyone else (well, that and being smart as hell).
President Coleman told the graduates that two iconic American holiday stories—Miracle on 34th Street and The Polar Express—were both written by U-M alumni. She said that in both stories, the central theme was one of whether or not you “believed.” (Specifically, in Santa Claus.)
“As our newest graduates, you may be wrestling with your own beliefs at the moment. No one will fault you, or any of us here today, for a wavering faith in some of our political and social institutions,” said President Coleman.
She asked the audience to think about what we can believe in, especially in the context of all the challenges around us including the uncertain global economy, fractured governments and deep skepticism about the country’s financial and corporate underpinnings.
“The answer sits before us in caps and gowns. We believe in you, the Class of 2011….
For all the challenges facing society—and the list is longer than anything Santa deals with—you give us tremendous hope for tomorrow.” (The whole speech is worth a read: you’ll find the transcript on her website).
Jill Abramson delivered a very personal keynote address. She told the audience that after graduation from Harvard, she knew she wanted to be a journalist but couldn’t find a job. She settled for answering the phones at Time magazine, where eventually she had the chance to write some stories after her phone shift ended. Her advice to Michigan’s newly minted degree holders? “Be a doctor of unafraid.”
Believe in yourself. Have the courage of your convictions. Work hard. Keep the faith. A fine set of messages for new graduates, and perhaps for all of us as we look ahead to a new year filled with uncertainty and deep challenges—for sure—but also with hope and promise.
I brought my camera to commencement this year, and you can see some images from the robing room and my vantage point on stage at my Flickr photostream.
Here’s wishing you happy holidays and a promising new year!
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