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Costolo urges students to 'bet on themselves'

BY ADAM RUBENFIRE AND ANDREW WEINER

Published May 4, 2013

At a 50,000-person event that was hardly improvised, the spring 2013 University graduates listened to Twitter CEO Dick Costolo as he spoke about the value of improvisation and living in the moment.

More than 5,000 graduating students took to the Big House on Saturday for commencement under sunny skies and a light wind. The video scoreboards displayed recorded messages from graduating students and tweets with #MGoGrad, fitting for an event headlined by the chief executive of hashtags.

University President Mary Sue Coleman gave remarks and presented honorary degrees on behalf of the University’s Board of Regents to Pulitzer-prize-winning historian David McCullough, University alum and philanthropist William Brehm, famed ballerina Suzanne Farrell and University alum Rosabeth Kanter, a business professor at Harvard University.

Coleman’s address challenged graduates to follow in the path of historic University alumni: “You will create change for the better, you will work on behalf of your neighbors, and you will do it with dignity and integrity.”

Costolo, a 1985 University graduate, began his address — which he jokingly said he began planning for Saturday morning — by taking a quick iPhone picture to tweet out to his 1 million followers, thanking his parents and reminding graduates to thank whoever supported them through their education.

Costolo, who was a computer science student during his time at the University, had a change of heart regarding his career after taking an acting class his senior year. It turned out to be more than “saying Arthur Miller lines to each other,” so he took another course the next semester and began stand-up comedy. Turning down programming job offers, he moved to Chicago to try his hand at improvisational comedy with the Second City, the famous theater company.

Costolo offered the picture-perfect version of how life in Chicago could have panned out, then explained the reality.

“In the real-world story of what happened, I decided to make a big bet on myself and take the chance to do this because it’s what I love,” Costolo said. “I was grinding away for a long time and had no money, and we would rehearse during the day and perform these little theaters at night for free and I was taking classes during the day at Second City, as well, trying to learn improvisation and eventually had to get out because I had no money. So I put my CS degree from Michigan to use wrapping flatware and selling place settings at Crate and Barrel.”

Improvisation, he said, is less than a skill than an expectation for graduates as they follow their passions.

He passed on advice given to him by a director at Second City: “The beauty of improvisation is you’re experiencing it in the moment, if you try to plan what the next line will be, you’re just going to be disappointed,” he said.

To end his often humorous remarks, Costolo invoked myriad careers University graduates would pursue and had advice no matter where they end up: “Be right there, and nowhere else, in that moment. Soak it all it. And remember to say thank you.”

In an interview after commencement, Costolo said, “You have this intellectual sense of how big the crowd is, but until you go out there and experience it, you don’t really have an appreciation for it.”

“You have to have a north star,” he said of the path — or lack thereof — he endorsed, “but you can’t constantly worry about, ‘Well, and then I’m supposed to do this,’ because life doesn't work that way and you won’t experience your life. You’ll be living it in service to some expectations that are fiction.”

LSA graduate Anisha Chadha was the only student speaker on Saturday. Though she came to the University concerned about how she would feel among some 25,000 undergraduates, Chadha said joining student organizations allowed her to create a small, unique community on campus.

“I realized, no matter what we were doing, it was almost impossible for me to feel small,” Chadha said in her address. “Even when I was in this Big House, with 114,803 other people, I began to realize that what I was feeling was not smallness, but rather I was feeling like I was a part of something bigger than myself.”

Though most use the term “Michigan Difference” to describe the academic and cultural caliber of the University, Chadha explained it as the impact Michigan graduates can have on humanity.

“It is the difference we were given the opportunity to make,” Chadha said. “It is the knowledge, the empathy and the skills we have gained here that are needed to be able to make a thoughtful difference in the lives of others.”

As she concluded her speech, Chadha reminded her fellow graduates that they represent the University and the power of its graduates in their future endeavors.

“Always remember: you are contributing to our class’s ‘Michigan Difference’ and the difference made by all of the Wolverines before us.”

Nursing graduate Shana Walker participated as flag bearer, designated to carry and mount the ceremonial flag of the School of Nursing. She said she was honored to sit on stage with the University’s deans, regents and administrators.

Reflecting on her undergraduate career here, Walker said she would always remember the time she spent studying abroad in South Africa. She stressed that students should participate in study-abroad programs and student organizations before they graduate to make their time at the University unique.

Though some graduates are concerned about entering a still-recovering job market, Walker wasn’t. Rather, she said feels qualified to enter her field and expects to find employment.

Other graduates, such as LSA graduate Margo Koutsouradis, said they feel a mix of fear and excitement in starting the next chapter of their lives. Koutsouradis said she’s not entirely sure of her post-graduation plans, but noted that she will be taking the LSAT in the coming months and taking time off before going to law school.

Music, Theater & Dance graduate Austin Hoeltzel was chosen to perform the National Anthem to begin the ceremony.

“I was honored to be asked, and it was the perfect way to finish my time here at the University,” Hoeltzel said.

Hoeltzel will soon attend the University of Houston to pursue a Master’s degree in vocal performance. Like many fellow graduates, he said he was happy to embrace the enormity the University while making long-lasting friendships and memories through smaller groups on campus, including the Men’s Glee Club.

“The University just has everything. It’s got the big University feel, but then I was at the Music School on North Campus that had that conservatory feel. There’s amazing groups to be a part of … it’s just been really wonderful.”