Donna Shalala

University of Miami Commencement Address - December 15, 2016

Donna Shalala
December 15, 2016— Coral Gables, Florida
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President Frenk, members of the Board of Trustees, faculty, staff, graduates, and guests, it is a pleasure for me to be back here on this stage.

I want to congratulate my friend Dean Nena Peragallo on receiving the President’s Medal. She has been a fabulous colleague and leader.

I’m especially grateful to receive this honorary degree. I may have been President of this university for 14 years - - but today, for the first time, I can say with great pride that it’s great to be a Miami Hurricane! I thank you for that privilege, and for the countless ways this extraordinary institution has taught me, inspired me, challenged me, delighted me, and made me grow.

Class of 2016 - - each of you has worked very hard to be here today - - many of you have not only carried a full course load, but held jobs and supported families. Whatever path has brought you here today, you should take great pride in your accomplishments - - and your obvious stamina.

It’s been a long time since I was sitting where you were, but I remember exactly how you feel at this moment. I’ll never forget my own college graduation. In the air, you could feel a sense of excitement, anticipation, and above all, a fear that the commencement speech would never end.

But don’t worry. I’m under no illusion about my own role here today. As a New York Governor once famously said, “Commencement speakers should think of themselves as the body at an Irish wake. They need you to have the party, but nobody expects you to say very much.” I will try my best to live up to those expectations today.

You have arrived.

You are ready - - even if you don’t completely believe it - - because this wonderful university has prepared you for what lies ahead.

I believe that the best graduation speeches are all about giving advice. As a teacher at heart, I’m very happy to share my advice - - though I do remember an answer a student actually once gave on an essay question on Socrates. He wrote, “Socrates was a famous teacher who went around trying to give people advice … they poisoned him.”

At the risk of being poisoned, I will attempt to share some advice today. Believe it or not, most of life’s great lessons can actually be learned from someone who has always been my best friend here on campus.

I know he has been a friend to many of you as well.

That wise leader is Sebastian the Ibis.

He symbolizes all that is good in this community.

The first lesson we can learn from Sebastian the Ibis is to be courageous. As we all know, the ibis is famous for its bravery. He is the last to leave before a hurricane and the first to return after the storm. Just as Sebastian stands tall no matter what comes his way, you must have the courage to stand up for your values and stand up for one another.

One of my proudest moments on campus was during the terrible days of 9/11. Our student leaders reached out to their Muslim and Sikh classmates and made it clear this was a safe campus for them. One of them, the leader of Hillel - - our Jewish Center - - summed it up: “an attack or harassing of any of you is an attack on all of us”.

In a time of great peril but even greater promise, you will be asked to solve some tough challenges and confront our oldest demons.

You will also have the chance to dream new dreams and pursue a future that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more compassionate than any time in human history.

The second lesson that Sebastian teaches us is that a positive attitude can go a long way. When our team is behind, Sebastian never loses hope. He rallies the faithful, leads the charge, and lifts the spirits of everyone around him with his optimism, enthusiasm, and sense of humor.

We all suffer setbacks and disappointments in life. The most important thing is to pick yourselves up, brush yourself off and keep going.

Approach each day with gratitude and curiosity; with open eyes and open ears, open hearts and open minds. When something unexpected comes—and believe me, it always comes—you’ll have the emotional and intellectual tools to handle it.

This brings me to the third lesson of Sebastian the Ibis: he is teaching us that as members of a community, we all have a responsibility to treat every person we meet with kindness, dignity, and respect.

Watch Sebastian as he walks around campus. He is polite and endlessly patient with your selfies. He doesn’t even flinch when four-year-olds are hitting him.

Remember this - - our world is shaped not only by big events, but by the sum of hundreds of small actions we take every day. Define the future in your individual relationships. The simplest of kind gestures, however insignificant they may seem, can be woven into a brilliant tapestry of compassion, love, and strength.

You leave this university equipped with both the map and the compass with which to find the right path to your destiny.

Your map is your degree, which opens up new doors of opportunity and empowers you to pursue a chosen career - - or more accurately, a first career, a second career, a third career, and so on.

The compass is something more intangible, but arguably more important. It is the spirit of community that has been part of your education here from day one.

It is the belief that every person has something about them that makes them special; that everyone knows something that no one else knows. When we come together in common cause, we are greater than the sum of our parts.

There is truth in the Ethiopian proverb, “When spider webs unite, they can tie up a lion.” Strength in diversity is the lifeblood of this campus, this community and this country and the world.

In moments of uncertainty, people are often tempted to retreat into timeworn divisions. The great challenge of your lifetime will be to embrace what makes us different from one another, recognizing that there’s a lot to gain by practicing tolerance and understanding—and a lot to lose in practicing fear and mistrust.

Strive to be a good person, as well as a great professional.

Because ultimately you won’t be judged by your college degrees, but by your character.

You won’t be judged by who you know, but by who you are.

You won’t be judged by what you earn, but by what you contribute. For as Lily Tomlin said, “Even if you win the rat race, you’re still a rat.”

As you begin this long journey, I promise you it will be both enormous fun and serious business. When I was in your position years ago, I didn’t know exactly where life would take me, but I promised myself that I would never play it safe. I’ve kept that promise.

As you prepare to leave the University of Miami, my deepest hope is that you won’t play it safe either.

I wish for you the best of everything and that all your dreams come true.

I wish you compassion and endurance.

I wish you good health, great friendships, and love.

I wish you uncomfortable but exciting lives.

Finally, I know my friend Sebastian would want to join me in saying Congratulations and Happy Holidays!

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