Spring Commencement speakers reflect on time spent at ‘U,’ future ambitions

Sunday, May 5, 2019 - 9:07am

Students, parents, faculty and guests filled Michigan Stadium Saturday morning for the annual University of Michigan Commencement ceremony. The event celebrated graduating students and featured Gov. Gretchen Whitmer as the commencement speaker.

LSA Interim Dean Elizabeth Cole said in her speech that graduates have abilities which are not yet known to them but should not be afraid to utilize them when the time comes. As an alum herself, Cole said she understands how attending the University prepares students for the world and is inspired by its history of student activism.

“My wish for you, the class of 2019, is to recognize your power,” Cole said. “You have everything you need to face the challenges of your time.”

LSA senior Avi Sholkoff, one of four student speakers, said he first came to campus unsure if he would fit in and if Ann Arbor was right for him. However, he found communities, and said he leaves the University knowing it was for him.

Sholkoff focused his speech around destigmatizing the mental health problems that can come with college life. He said these issues are often not talked about, but he wanted attendees to know it is a real issue and to recognize the importance of mental health awareness.

“Michigan became the first place where I realized feelings of anxiety and loneliness are truly OK,” Sholkoff said. “To anyone hearing this: know that you are not alone and you matter.”

Engineering senior Bassal Salka shared his experience at the University as a Muslim. He discussed the people he met as well as his own involvement at the University.

“When we reflect on our time at U-M, we think of skills learned or goals achieved,” Salka said. “These successes tell only half the story. Equally important are the variety of experiences and resulting emotions that have built our character, shaped our ambitions and produced lifelong friendships.”

Public Policy senior Yvonne Navarrete said the lessons she has learned through her parents, her Detroit community and her time at the University have helped her confront fear with courage. Navarrete founded La Casa, a Latinx student organization, at the University with other student leaders. 

“I was uncertain and afraid when I first applied to this prestigious University as an undocumented student,” Navarrete said. “I didn’t know if I would be accepted, wanted or able to afford the ‘Michigan Difference.’ When I arrived on campus, I was still uncertain but less afraid. I realized that Michigan could be a space where I could be a student and an activist.”

Following Navarrete, University President Mark Schlissel addressed the graduating class. He explained the change in political climate since their arrival at the University, using the #MeToo movement and the recent increase in youth voting turnout as examples.

“We live in an era of accelerating change where often, as a society and as individuals, we seem to be struggling to keep up,” Schlissel said. “Graduation is all about change, and at Michigan that means it’s not only about the change in you, it’s about the changes you will contribute to in society.”

Information senior Kayla Williams shared her experience as a deaf student. Though navigating came with its challenges, she said she was honored to be a part of the graduating class.

“It is true that the University of Michigan can be a very large and intimidating campus,” Williams said. “However, with that intimidation comes a world of possibilities. So, let’s seek solutions.”

In addition to the student speakers, the ROTC class was sworn in. Two videos were also played on screens highlighting honorary degree recipients Randy Schekman, Doctor of Science; Mark di Suvero, Doctor of Fine Arts; Leslie Uggams, Doctor of Fine Arts and Gov. Whitmer, Doctor of Laws.

In her commencement address, Gov. Whitmer discussed her Michigan roots and her own familiarity with the University. A graduate of Michigan State University, Whitmer said she admires the University’s reputation and student body.

Additionally, Whitmer explained how the current generation is compared to the last. Although generations are often compared on account of their income, she said money alone cannot guarantee happiness.

“The world has undergone enormous change in this hundred years, and in each successive decade the pace of that change has accelerated,” Whitmer said. “Which might be scary for some if they didn’t realize that you are the best educated generation ever.”

Whitmer further expressed her trust in the graduates.

“I believe you — your generation and the generations that follow will be the engine that drives a course correction for our country and the world,” Whitmer said. “This will take hard work, but my grandma would tell you it’s worth it.”