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Barra gives students life lessons at spring commencement

By Shoham Geva, Summer Managing News Editor
Published May 3, 2014

More than 5,000 graduates marked the last time they’ll sit in the Big House as students Saturday morning during spring commencement ceremonies.

The event was also University President Mary Sue Coleman’s last graduation ceremony before she retires this July.

“We are leaving Michigan together, graduates, you and I,” Coleman told graduates in her opening remarks. “While you are embarking on your first job, or an advanced degree, I am concluding 45 years in higher education. I could not be more honored than to have my final commencement as University president be with you, the class of 2014.”

During her closing remarks, she also took the opportunity to reflect by snapping a selfie with the crowd.

For the roughly 90-minute ceremony, the graduates heard from General Motors CEO Mary Barra, the keynote speaker, as well as Provost Martha Pollack, Coleman, interim LSA dean Susan Gelman, and now-graduated LSA senior Samuel Facas. Now-graduated Music, Theatre & Dance senior Francesca Chiejina also performed the national anthem at the event.

Barra is the first female CEO of a major automaker. Her invitation to speak drew some controversy on campus in regards to a current federal investigation of GM’s recall policies, but she didn’t address the issue, or GM, directly in the speech.

Instead, she gave graduates six lessons to carry with them after they left the University.

“The skills you have learned here at Michigan – critical thinking, problem solving, communication, analysis, teamwork – they are just as essential for success today as they were 30 years ago,” Barra said. “But as I’m sure you know very well, these skills are just the start of what you need for success in today’s challenging world. They are the price of admission to today’s fast-paced, ever-changing, increasingly global economy.”

Barra told graduates to pursue their careers with passion and hard work, conduct themselves with integrity at all times, build relationships, address challenges head-on, give something back, and always remember their families and friends.

“Remember: hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard,” she said. “Don’t be content to work around the edges of your profession. Don’t wait to be invited to important meetings, or asked to work on crucial assignments. Instead, do whatever it takes to ensure that you work in the middle of your business. Speak up. Volunteer. Show your enthusiasm. Knock on doors.”

In speeches before Barra’s, Gelman and Pollack also encouraged students to reflect on several life lessons.

In honor of Christopher Peterson, a University professor who passed away in 2012, Gelman asked students to consider the theme of the Fall 2010 theme semester — the question of what makes life worth living — which Peterson helped organize. For most graduating students, that semester was also their first at the University.

“As you go out into the world and into the months and years ahead, I ask that you keep in mind the lessons learned from that theme semester, and from your years here at the university,” Gelman said. “I hope you continue to find many new answers to the question of what makes life worth living. And I’ll leave you with one final aphorism from Prof. Peterson: ‘Days are long. Life is short. Live it well.”

Along with the conferring of degrees on all of the graduates, honorary degrees were given to six individuals. Barra was awarded an honorary doctorate of engineering. Jose Antonio Abreu, orchestra conductor and musician, was given an honorary doctorate of music. James L. Curtis and Adele Goldberg, both University alums, were given honorary doctorates of science — Curtis has performed influential medical research in several areas, including affirmative action, and Goldberg is considered a pioneer in the field of computer science.

University alum Daniel Okrent, a journalist and author who served as the first public editor of the New York Times, was given an honorary doctorate of humane letter. Stockbroker Marshall Weinberg, also a University alum as well as a major University donor, was awarded an honorary doctorate of laws.

Facas, who was the selected student speaker for the event, urged graduates to remember both how the University has pushed them, and how they’ve pushed the University during their time here, citing student activism efforts towards increased diversity on campus and against this year’s general admissions seating policy at football games.

“Our world is no more uncertain, no more daunting, than it was for Wolverines who graduated in 1864, 1944, or 1964, “ Facas said. “Yes, we are graduating into a world with injustice, a world with division, a world facing grave environmental challenges. And probably most troubling — a world that doesn’t allow for mid-day naps. But Michigan has pushed us to look past those realities, and to demand better answers.”

After the ceremony, newly graduated LSA senior Judy Yuan said she enjoyed the event, especially Barra’s speech.

“I think there were a lot of things that we could learn from it, “ Yuan said. “I know there was a lot of controversy, but I think what she said is definitely still valid.”

Newly graduated Kinesiology senior Eric Hyde also said he found the event engaging, both because of Barra and because of the unique perspective Coleman provided as an outgoing president.

“I thought [Barra] brought up some good points, she kept it interesting— Mary Sue, that was cool because it’s her last speech, so she got to look back,” Hyde said. “It was cool to hear some of the history, some of the unique people who have been here in the last ten years.”