At this year’s winter commencement —  a ceremony celebrating more than 800 graduates of the University of Michigan — speakers urged the class of 2017 to persevere and to look to the future with optimism.

Students, faculty and alumni shared their stories of success, determination in the face of rejection and struggle to overcome obstacles to create a better world. In honor of the Bicentennial, University President Mark Schlissel described the evolution of the University over the years. He highlighted the importance of history to gain insight into the future.

“One of the best ways to appreciate and assess change is to look into the past,” Schlissel said. “Our Bicentennial has given us the intellectual opportunity to examine and learn from key events in periods that have transformed our University. There are ample lessons that provide important perspectives, and they are relevant to the world we live in today.”

Schlissel also spoke on current issues in society, such as net neutrality and immigration policy. He compelled the new graduates to use their knowledge to participate in debates about these significant social issues.

“All of these issues affect our University, and we need your ongoing engagement to best respond,” he said. “You have the intellectual tools to encourage greater understanding and influence decisions that mend our society, rather than divide it.”

Opera singer Carla Dirlikov Canales, author Jesmyn Ward and other accomplished alumni received Bicentennial Alumni Awards during the commemoration. Canales performed the famous aria “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle” from Bizet’s “Carmen,” as well as her own original piece “Algun Día,” a song about the hope of someday living in a better world.

Ward, an associate professor of English at Tulane University, delivered the winter commencement address. She discussed her childhood in a poor, rural community in Mississippi where she learned the values of perseverance and hard work from her loved ones. She recounted the many challenges and failures she faced when chasing her dream to become a writer, and implored the class of 2017 to never give up. Ward relayed advice given to her by her thesis advisor at the University.

“Persist, work hard, face the rejection, weather the setbacks until you meet the gatekeeper who will open a door for you,” she said.

Social work graduate Brittney Williams told a similar story of conquering obstacles in order to achieve her goals. She suffered a setback in her education when she dropped out of school to support her mother who was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. However, she returned to the University to receive her bachelor’s degree in Sociology in 2016 and a master’s degree in Aging of Families and Society in 2017. Williams encouraged students to keep working toward their goals, even if they feel it is too late.

“Always remember: a victory outside the traditional timeline is still a win,” she said.

Rahul Mehta, a medical student at Touro College, attended the commencement to support a friend graduating from the College of Engineering. His words of advice to the class of 2017 echoed the sentiment of diligence.

“Everywhere you go, the secret to success is persistence,” Mehta said. “Whatever it is that you’re doing, persistence and having the will to be better than yourself the day before. If you do that every day, you’re going to go forward.”

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