Drawing on her childhood experiences and life journey after graduation, acclaimed author Jesmyn Ward told University of Michigan graduates to stay patient and persist when the road to success seems long and difficult.
Ward delivered the 2017 Winter Commencement address Sunday to graduates, friends, family members and others at Crisler Center. A U-M alumna and author of several books, including “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and “Salvage the Bones,” Ward has received numerous accolades, including two National Book Awards for fiction.
She described growing up in a poor, rural, mostly African-American community in Mississippi, noting her grandmother’s schooling ended at age 13 and that some of her grandmother’s children did not graduate high school.
When she was young, Ward said, the adults around her drifted from job to job and struggled to make it, and she believed their lives were the casualty of one fatal mistake: the decision to leave school.
Determined to have a different future, Ward believed going to college would end the cycle.
“But I was looking at the situations of the people I loved dimly, judging them by their choices without asking myself what realities narrowed their choices?” Ward said. “What circumstances limited what they could aspire to? What history and systems made them have one crappy choice after another?”
Although Ward went on to attend and graduate from Stanford University, she learned that attending college would not guarantee easy, immediate success free of obstacles. After graduation, she struggled to find a job and eventually moved back home.
She read widely and applied to U-M’s Master of Fine Arts program, where she wrote her first novel. She spent three years revising her MFA thesis and it took that amount of time to get a publisher to purchase its rights and publish it as a novel.
“Real success requires step after step after step after step. It requires choice after choice. It demands education and passion and commitment and persistence and hunger and patience,” Ward said.
In closing, Ward told the graduates that if they are exceptionally talented at their passion and possess “tireless ambition and keen direction right now,” they will go far, with their success arriving “early and rapidly.”
“If you are not one of those lucky people, if you are bewildered and confused and clinging tenaciously to some course you love, be patient, work hard, hold your dream tightly to you and do everything you can to realize it within reason,” Ward said. “Take a step that will lead you toward the realization of your dream and then take another and another and another.”
There were 3,772 graduates eligible to receive degrees and an estimated 900 participated at Winter Commencement, the second such ceremony of U-M’s bicentennial year. As with Spring Commencement, 10 recent alumni — including Ward — were honored with Bicentennial Alumni Awards, which commemorate U-M’s legacy of excellence and the contributions of alumni.
In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel told the audience that, perhaps more than any previous class, these graduates had helped determine the future of the university, whether by advocating for their classmates amid changes in federal immigration and tax policy or moving the university closer to achieving its environmental sustainability goals.
“Each of these activities will make us a better University of Michigan as we embark on our third century as a public university,” Schlissel said. “One important conclusion of our bicentennial is that we are a university that is changing — and you have a central role, not just in its present, but in its future.”
Schlissel said at a place like U-M, one never stops learning, adding that the graduates’ continued participation in the university will inform and inspire the educations of future generations of students.
To demonstrate how its bicentennial has provided the opportunity to examine and learn from key periods that transformed U-M, Schlissel invoked both the controversial issues and achievements made around the halfway point in U-M’s lifetime — the year 1917.
While that period saw positive changes on U-M’s campus, such as the first female managing editor at The Michigan Daily and the second African-American man in the nation to earn a Ph.D. in physics, it saw controversies as well.
During one incident, U-M dismissed six German Department professors who were accused of making pro-German remarks — a reminder, Schlissel said, “of what can happen when we let fear weaken our commitment to the protections of the First Amendment.”
A century later, he said, our response to problems has the ability to change the university for better or for worse, adding that during the graduates’ final semesters, the nation has debated a range of topics including net neutrality, immigration policy, free speech and health care access.
“All of these issues affect our university and we will need your ongoing engagement to best respond,” Schlissel said. “You have the intellectual tools to encourage greater understanding and influence decisions that mend our society rather than divide it, that reinforce our shared values rather than fall prey to fear, that prioritize discovery over ignorance.”
In his remarks, Provost Martin Philbert said if the university has done its job well, the graduates will have learned to think critically about what they read and hear, debate ideas respectfully and forcefully and to work hard for what they believe matters.
“As you go forward, we hope you will carry with you the wise words of the poet Maya Angelou, who said, ‘Know why you do. Tell people the meaning of your work,'” Philbert said. “If you take these words to heart, we have every confidence that you will be leaders and best in whatever you choose to do.”
Besides Ward, the Winter Commencement Bicentennial Alumni Award recipients were:
• Rebecca Alexander (Bachelor of Arts, ’01, American culture, LSA), practicing psychotherapist, author, extreme athlete and disability advocate.
• Tonya Allen (Bachelor of Arts, ’94, sociology, African studies and African American studies, LSA; Master of Social Work and Master of Public Health, ’96, School of Social Work and School of Public Health), president and chief executive officer of The Skillman Foundation.
• Carla Dirlikov Canales (Bachelor of Music, ’02, School of Music, Theatre & Dance), mezzo-soprano, arts advocate and entrepreneur.
• Darren Criss (Bachelor of Fine Arts, ’09, SMTD), actor, singer and songwriter.
• Cathy L. Drennan (Ph.D. in biological chemistry, ’95, Medical School), professor of biology and chemistry, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Howard Hughes Medical Institute professor and investigator.
• Senait Fisseha (internship, ’00, residency, ’03, and fellowship in reproductive endocrinology and infertility, all in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology, Medical School), director of international programs, Susan Thompson Buffett Foundation; and clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology, Medical School.
• Heather C. Hill (Ph.D. in political science, ’00, LSA; postdoctoral fellowship, ’07, School of Education), Jerome T. Murphy Professor in Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education.
• Matthew Kotchen (Master of Science, ’03, resource policy, School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Ph.D., ’03, economics, LSA), professor of economics and associate dean of academic affairs at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies.
• Charles Woodson (attended School of Kinesiology, 1995-98), football player, philanthropist and entrepreneur.
Woodson and Criss could not attend the event because of prior commitments.
Throughout the ceremony, graduating students of diverse personal and academic backgrounds introduced various parts of the program.
In their speeches, the students shared stories about where they came from, their experiences while attending U-M and how the university has impacted their lives.
The student speakers were:
•Vrej George Dawli Khanjian, LSA.
•Angela Miller, LSA.
•Patrick Mullan-Koufopoulos, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.
•Alice Isabella Sullivan, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.
•Brittney Williams, School of Social Work.