Gretchen Whitmer

University of Michigan Commencement Address - May 4, 2019

Gretchen Whitmer
May 04, 2019— Ann Arbor, Michigan
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Hello, you beautiful Wolverines!

President Schlissel; Provost Philbert; distinguished deans; faculty, regents, staff; friends and family; and most importantly, the amazing class of 2019: Congratulations!

I am truly honored to celebrate with you today.

You may know that I am a Spartan. I have been since my dad took me to see Magic Johnson at Jenison Field House in East Lansing. Now, while I think he’s the finest athlete to come out of our great state, though I can admit Tom Brady and Derek Jeter probably round out the top three.

There is a lot to admire about the University of Michigan. Your stellar reputation. Your surprisingly chic football helmets. Your exceptional students from Michigan and all over the world. And your fight song — a masterpiece of verbal economy and one of the most durable ear worms I have ever encountered.

And you. The class of 2019.

We have something in common. Four years ago, you were leaving your friends and family and the comfort of home to embark on the journey that led you to right here, right now. Four years ago, I also headed to Ann Arbor, to teach a course at the Ford School, not entirely sure what to expect.

But when I arrived, something amazing happened. I came to Ann Arbor, to this beautiful campus and here I experienced my own version of the Michigan Difference.

I got to engage with students both undergraduate and graduate, who were so thoughtful and smart.

Students who were passionate and eager to learn and full of big ideas — like holding class at Charley’s.

Students who challenged me in ways that I had not been challenged in some time.

And now, with my honorary degree, I am also a Wolverine and proud of it. I don’t say this often, but Go Blue!

My roots in Michigan are deep. I was born here. My parents were raised here. My grandmother lived in the same house in Pontiac for nearly sixty years. Her turquoise shag carpet went in and out of fashion at least three times during her tenure. But it was spotless. Just like she liked it.

Margaret Esther Elliott was born in 1913 on a modest farm in Ohio. She lived to be 100 years old. She was smart and strong and funny, a natural educator, an amazing gardener and a fashion rebel who wore white jeans year-round before Anna Wintour said it was okay.

She used to tell people she kept her figure until she was 85. Then “it all went to hell.” She drove until she was 98 and her last car was a red convertible. Her biggest fault was that she was an Ohio State graduate. See – I knew you were too classy to boo my dear, departed grandmother.

She used to tell us that she thought the world changed more in her century than it had in any other in history. And I think she may have been right. And even if she wasn’t, it’s very impolite to argue with your 100-year-old grandmother.

My grandmother had three pieces of advice that stuck with me. Work hard. Don’t get married until you’re 28, and never part your hair in the middle.

Yeah. I’m not really sure about what that last one was all about.

Over the course of her lifetime, she gained the right to vote, lost the right to drink and then got it back again.

There were two world wars then Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again.

One president was assassinated, one resigned in scandal, one was impeached and for the first time an African American man held the office.

There was a Great Depression and a Great Recession and the American financial system teetered on the brink of collapse.

Astronauts walked on the moon and two space shuttles exploded.

McCarthyism. Desegregation. Watergate. The Civil Rights Act. School shootings. Obamacare.

And these are just historical events.

Think about advances in technology and science and travel. Nuclear power, radio, airplanes, television, antibiotics, the internet, cell phones and, of course, nearest and dearest to us in Michigan — the automobile.

The world has undergone enormous change in this hundred years and in each successive decade, the pace continues to accelerate.

Which might be scary for some if they didn’t realize something about you. YOU are the best educated generation ever. And this year, the year you have earned your diploma, yours is forecasted to become the largest generation in the United States.

That mean you, all of you, are poised to shape the future of this nation and the world. You are now in the driver’s seat. The question is, where do YOU want to go?

Often when we talk about generations, we talk about whether the current generation has done better than the last. Typically the only variable used for this measurement is money.

But we know that money alone can’t guarantee happiness. It won’t mend a broken heart. It doesn’t prevent tragedy and it cannot conjure joy. Yet the instinct to equate it with well-being persists.

Studies comparing generations are beginning to conclude that yours might be the first to NOT do better than your parents.

But if change in our society is only accelerating, why would we continue to use the same old metric to measure how we are doing? Why are we measuring success with bank statements?

I don’t think that makes much sense. I believe this generation will do better — simply by doing GOOD.

Over the course of my lifetime and in my career I have seen our systems break down, our dialogues turn into monologues, technology amplifying the voices of those willing to embrace extremes and vilify those who disagree with them.

We’ve rewarded people who sow chaos and distrust, who tell us we can have everything and pay for nothing, who glorify greed and criminalize poverty. Right now, we are pretty dysfunctional.

We ARE still a young country — maybe these are just our awkward teenage years?

But it’s 2019 — and you just got your license. Where do YOU want to go?

I know I am expecting a lot of you. But I’ll quote my cousin and tell you, that great expectations beget great results. I watch my high school daughters and I know they are occupied with far more serious thoughts than my generation was forced to reckon with at that age. But there is passion and activism and courage and even wisdom that go with it.

I’ve been inspired by young champions in the battle against climate change. I met a 12-year-old who started filling potholes because of his mom’s car repair bills.

I’ve watched the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School motivate a new generation to solve problems made worse by years of inaction. To participate in our democracy at a much younger age. To grab megaphones and amplify positive messages. To brilliantly use technology for their cause.

So I believe you — your generation and the generations that follow will be the engine that drives a course correction for our country and the world. It will take hard work. But my grandma would tell you it’s worth it. So think about it.

Where do YOU want to go?

I’m not just talking about politics. I’m talking about life. We need to remember that while we all come from different backgrounds with different opportunities and views of the world, we ALL have value. We deserve dignity and respect. And we all have a stake in our shared future.

Our best chance to meet the challenges we face is to stop yelling and start listening. To recognize that fixing infrastructure isn’t just about roads, but about fairness and opportunity. To know we can improve the world when we fight injustice, intolerance and indifference, but not when we fight each other.

Let me repeat that. Fight injustice. Fight intolerance. Fight indifference.

It’s not always easy — there will be times when you need a fight song to lift your spirits. Perhaps one that was once selected the top college fight song of all time. One that plays on a loop in your head incessantly. Yes, Hail to the victors.

But before you leave here today, looking toward the future, take a moment to reflect on your time here in Ann Arbor. The friendships you’ve made, the papers you’ve written, the lectures that moved you and even the ones you dozed through. This is a magical time in your life. Take a moment before blazing your next trail to savor your accomplishment, appreciate your professors and thank your parents and those who supported you along the way.

From here out, you will see you will meet Wolverines all over the world. You will meet them in the most surprising places and you will know that you have something in common.

While you may not agree on everything, that thread binds you. So I encourage you to wear your block M on your sleeve, long after you leave here, to remind you to treat everyone you meet like a Wolverine when you see them and see the good in them.

I have a few more pieces of advice I would like to offer as you prepare for the next leg of your journey.

Like my grandma said, work hard.

Make a plan.

And part your hair however you like.

If you do good, you WILL do better than the generation that came before.

So, Class of 2019, you brilliant Wolverines — I will go back to fixing the damn roads, but now, now it’s up to you to buckle your seatbelts and decide — where do you want to go?

Today when we leave the Big House, we will all be happy, unlike my other times here at the Big House, because we are all Wolverines, and I congratulate you.

Congratulations and go Blue!