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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.