Graduates urged to be 'curious and adaptable and persistent'
Facing the uncertainties of a world after college, graduates at Winter Commencement were advised to remember they may not have learned all the answers, "but the incredible education you have received at Michigan has certainly equipped you to understand the questions."
Commencement speaker Dr. Raynard S. Kington, president of Grinnell College and himself a recipient of bachelor's and medical degrees from U-M, told members of the class of 2012 — gathered with friends, family and faculty at Crisler Center on Sunday — that they must be "curious and adaptable and persistent" in their quest for answers.
Dr. Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College, delivers the Winter Commencement address. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)
“This great university has taught you many things, as it did me. But it has not given you all the answers to life’s persistent questions, as Garrison Keillor is fond of calling them. It could not. Not knowing is part of the human experience," he said.
Kington illustrated his commencement lesson with a story of one time when he felt ill equipped to console his 6-year-old son. The boy was upset and unable to sleep as he worried about some rather large fears: the concept of infinite numbers, the idea that space did not end, and the reality that everyone eventually dies.
Kington tried several conceptual, historic and psychological strategies to calm his son, only to realize the futility of each new attempt.
"I decided to do what parents have done for thousands of years when their children were inconsolable: I sang him a song," Kington said, recalling that he settled on "Summertime" from "Porgy and Bess."
"He stopped me and asked, ‘What does it mean that I will spread my wings?’ I said that means that one day you will no longer be a boy, you will be a man and take responsibility for your life and do what you want to do with your life, and I know that you will just soar. The idea completely stopped his crying."
Kington said the lessons U-M graduates should take from that experience include "get comfortable with infinity" and "there are no final answers."
"And then there will be times when the only thing you can do in your bafflement is surrender to the beautiful unknowability of everything and sing a soothing song, if only to yourself – and that's OK, as well," he said.
Kington was awarded a Doctor of Laws degree, joining four other honorary degree recipients at the ceremony. A sixth honoree, jazz performer Dee Dee Bridgewater, received a Doctor of Music degree Dec. 9 at the UM-Flint commencement. Also honored Sunday were:
• Michael Boyd, Doctor of Humane Letters. Boyd is artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company and known for his influence on international theater and commitment to sharing William Shakespeare with diverse audiences.
• Molly Dobson, Doctor of Laws. Dobson is a U-M alumna, civic leader and philanthropist, and has been a trailblazer for positive change in Ann Arbor and at the university for more than six decades.
• Joschka Fischer, Doctor of Laws. Fischer was minister for foreign affairs and deputy chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany from 1998-2005, and is recognized as one of Germany's most powerful and respected political leaders.
• Cornelia G. Kennedy, Doctor of Laws. Kennedy is senior judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, and the first woman appointed to the federal bench in Michigan. Kennedy's son, Charles, received the degree on her behalf.
In her remarks, President Mary Sue Coleman invoked the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, a 1935 U-M graduate whose heroic efforts during World War II rescued thousands of Hungarian Jews from Nazi death camps. This year marks the centennial of his birth.
She recalled Wallenberg once said he felt "so at home in my little Ann Arbor that I am beginning to sink down roots here, and I have a hard time imagining my leaving it." But he also understood he could not linger because, "I am not doing anything very useful here."
"There comes a moment – in your case, today – when it is time to move on to the next challenge," Coleman told those seated before her, adding that the coming years will bring a world "where, more than ever, individuals will make a difference with their creativity and their actions.
“These individuals will be you. The world will look to you, as graduates of one of the great universities, for solutions to climate change, new models of public education, innovative cures and therapies, and the leadership that is the hallmark of Michigan alumni."
Provost Phil Hanlon began the ceremony by asking for a moment of silence for the victims of Friday's school shooting in Newtown, Conn. — children and teachers "who came together only to learn and to teach."
He went on to speak of "breadth, diversity, service, leadership — words that describe the rich and complex Michigan experience."
|In her remarks on behalf of the students, Katharine Stockrahm describes how an encounter with a "demon squirrel" led to a memorable U-M experience. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)|
“Michigan is a place of service, committed to making a positive difference in the world. I hope that every one of you has experienced this in a powerful way during your time at Michigan," Hanlon said.
“As you leave us today, we wish each of you good luck in the years ahead. We will watch your accomplishments with awe and pride and we will know that a part of Michigan is in each one."
Katharine Stockrahm of Dearborn, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, delivered the student address, recalling her first days at U-M and a bicycle accident that occurred when she tried to avoid a squirrel. Bystanders, a professor and new classmates came to her aid. "It was as if this whole campus came together to right that demon squirrel’s wrong," she said.
“People always talk about the Michigan difference as if it could be defined simply by a carefully selected string of words. I’m here to say it’s really a collection of experiences," Stockrahm said. "What I learned that day has stayed with me the entirety of my experience here, and will remain with me throughout my lifetime."