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At Spring Commencement, Sanjay Gupta offers life lessons

By Paige Pearcy, Daily News Editor
Published April 28, 2012

Over the weekend, 11,574 graduates received their tickets to leave Ann Arbor, to stop checking CTools and to never turn in another blue book exam.

In the Big House, blanketed with overcast skies, the University graduates sat for about two hours to hear speakers, including University alum Sanjay Gupta, and receive the official recognition of their degrees.

Gupta, who is the chief medical correspondent for CNN and a practicing neurosurgeon, started his speech with his long-felt personal attachment to Ann Arbor, beginning with his parents meeting in the city and leading to his eventual attendance at the University for undergraduate and medical school.

“Not only was the foundation for most of my life conceived in this town, I myself was likely conceived in this town,” Gupta said. “Best bet is the 17th floor of the University Towers — but no one’s talking for sure.”

Gupta then delved into 10 more serious lessons for the graduates while he stood on the podium.

“Lesson number one: always respect your elders,” Gupta began. “There’s no doubt that our parents seem to grow smarter as we grow older, but truth is they also sacrificed an incredible amount to allow our lives be what they are, and it is on their shoulders that we realize our greatest triumphs.”

Other lessons included advice to make the impossible possible and to always cheer for the Wolverines.

“If you ever cheer for another team in competition with the Wolverines, then some 500,000 alumni will hunt you down and paint you maize and blue,” Gupta said.

He also said the graduates should drink a beer at Ashley’s, which was met with applause from listeners and prompted Gupta to offer to buy drinks for anyone he saw out on the night of commencement — and the cheers continued.

Gupta told anecdotes about his children and his experiences reporting abroad that have put his life at risk.

He spoke about a time when he was in a war zone in Afghanistan and his camp was being invaded by enemy soldiers. He was instructed to write a letter to his loved ones in case of his death. He suggested the graduates think about what they would write in such a situation.

“I don’t know what you’d write, and maybe you’ve never thought two seconds about it, but lesson number five graduates, make sure you can write this sentence: ‘I am who I always wanted to be,’” he said.

As the speakers in the stadium were still echoing Gupta’s final words, the crowd erupted with a “Go Blue” chant. University President Mary Sue Coleman paused to laugh before continuing with the ceremony.

During a press conference after the speech, where Gupta donned a navy blazer and maize socks, he said Coleman asked him to be the commencement speaker at a football game.

“It was a tremendous honor,” he said. “I think it was particularly exhilarating just being in the Big House when I was asked to do it because this place has profound memories for me.”

After the ceremony, Gupta also said that while the current economy is challenging, he feels the graduates have an advantage when it comes to finding jobs with their degrees from the University.

“I think Michigan graduates are pretty uniquely prepared in our collective society,” Gupta said. “It’s tough (with) the economy, but I think Michigan grads probably have a leg up just because of the education they have and also the resources in terms of the alumni.”

Gupta explained during his speech the ways he defines the Michigan tradition, telling the graduates to never forget what the tradition means as they go forth in their lives.

“It’s a Michigan tradition to take risks and, in the process, blaze new trails,” Gupta said. “It’s a Michigan tradition to always read the directions but not always to follow them, to always prepare but sometimes throw that preparation in the trash allowing yourself to be surprised, honest and genuine. It’s a Michigan tradition to make history and change the world, to be immortal not as in living forever but as never being forgotten.”

Other speakers who addressed the crowd of about 50,000 before Gupta’s speech included LSA Associate Dean Philip Deloria, who spoke in place of LSA Dean Terrence McDonald who was unable to attend, Engineering graduate Julia Brennan and Coleman.

In Deloria’s remarks, he explained the word “gumption” to the crowd, saying all of those graduating have it. He said though having gumption gives one “guts” and “wits,” it is not the only aspect graduates will need in life as they move forward.

“Mix one part gumption with equal parts knowledge, commitment, patience and the willingness to take a risk,” Deloria said. “Stir in a healthy portion of liberal arts and sciences education and you have before you a recipe for success — a recipe to become truly one of the leaders and best.”

Brennan, who was the selected student speaker, asked the students to never forget their first days at the University, which she said was a shared experience between all of the graduates.

“Celebrate that unsettled feeling,” Brennan said. “Celebrate Michigan for instilling in us the confidence to thrive in everything we choose to do.”

Coleman was the last to speak before the granting of the honorary degrees. She spoke about creativity and said the graduates will need to adopt new ways of thinking to change the future.

“Simply put, we expect you to raise a few eyebrows,” Coleman said.

Honorary degrees were awarded by the University’s Board of Regents to five University alumni, including Gupta, who received a Doctor of Humane Letters.

J. Ira Harris, a financier, received an honorary Doctor of Laws, and Richard Sarns, a biomedical engineer and entrepreneur, received an honorary Doctor of Engineering. Both Susan Orlean, author and writer for The New Yorker magazine, and Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of books such as Jumanji and The Polar Express, received honorary Doctors of Humane Letters as well.

Coleman said the group of honorary degree recipients was an influential team.

“They embody the power and reward of creativity,” she said. “They express their ideas and talents in different reaches and outlets.”

LSA graduate Devon Porter, who will spend the upcoming weeks applying for jobs, said the speeches were inspirational.

“It was a very good ceremony, I got a lot from it,” Porter said. “It’s great because they spoke to the anxiety that comes with graduating, especially in this job market, but they also spoke to that feeling of ‘go after it’ and do what you love doing.”