When first asked to deliver the University of Michigan’s 2022 Spring Commencement address, Maria Shriver said she declined.
She was afraid to walk into Michigan Stadium, embarrass her sons and have nothing memorable or valuable to say to the graduates.
After some thought, though, she phoned President Mary Sue Coleman and accepted the offer.
“I’m a big believer in facing your fears head on,” the award-winning journalist, author and former first lady of California told graduates, seated in tight rows before her on the Big House field April 30.
“Not pushing through your fear, not pushing through that which scares you, will leave you feeling like you’re not brave. It will leave you with an unrealized, unfulfilled version of yourself. And believe me, graduates, that is something to fear.”
Commencement exercises for the approximately 14,000 eligible graduates took place under cloudy but dry skies with a steady, occasionally gusty, wind. After two years in which there was either no commencement ceremony or a limited in-person celebration because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2022 version had a more traditional and familiar vibe.
Graduates faced the stage in the north end zone and guests filled 27 sections of the stands in a U-shape around them. Their joy in celebrating the end of their undergraduate education was evident. Large video screens captured screams, smiles and waves any time a camera panned close enough.
Shriver addressed the graduates for 20 minutes, after receiving an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. She encouraged them to do as she did — face their fears — and reminded them that fear can show up in any stage of their lives, regardless of what they have accomplished.
“To truly know who you are, you cannot hide from yourself,” she said.
“Your generation has been given the gift of a shredded rule book, a wide-open field,” she said. “So much of what used to be called normal is out the window. This uncertain moment that you and our world are facing, it’s an incredible opportunity for you.
“And those fears you may be feeling, they’re actually a window into your own bravery, and this moment we’re all in is a moment for the brave.”
She urged the graduates to not wait to pursue passions that make them feel alive.
Shriver said she has addressed her fears through meditation, expressive writing, faith and therapy. One of the biggest cheers during her speech came when she told graduates to never let anyone tell them therapy is for the weak, but rather for the strong.
“You are way stronger than you can imagine, and the best way to access that strength that lives inside of you is to do everything you are afraid of, right now when you graduate and in the future,” she said.
She closed with a pep talk before the students officially became alumni.
“Put your shoulders back, hold your head up high and walk through hell like you own the place,” she said.
In addition to Shriver, other honorary degree recipients this year are:
- Berry Gordy, songwriter, producer, entrepreneur and founder of the Motown record label, Doctor of Music.
- Thomas Cleveland Holt, historian and college professor, Doctor of Humane Letters.
- William C. Martin, former U-M athletic director, and founder and chair of the Bank of Ann Arbor, Doctor of Laws.
- Maria M. Klawe, a computer scientist, scholar and president of Harvey Mudd College, Doctor of Engineering degree.
- Anthony S. Fauci, physician, scientist and leading federal health official, Doctor of Science. Fauci will receive his honorary degree when he addresses 2020 graduates at the May 7 Comeback Commencement.
In her remarks, Coleman considered the theme of the 1960s rock musical “Hair,” recently staged by U-M musical theater students. Its lead character, Claude, wrestled with what to do with his life, the possibility of being drafted to fight in Vietnam, and the desire to be invisible — a free spirit.
“Claude is hardly the first young person to feel anxious about the future and their place in it. Young or old, none of us knows what will happen tomorrow or the day after, or how we will make a difference in the world,” Coleman said.
And like the turbulent ’60s, the times and challenges faced by the Class of 2022 have been disruptive: the pandemic, a reckoning about race and the treatment of African Americans and people of color, and senseless deaths of everyday citizens.
“But I want to believe these difficult days also have brought some clarity to the dilemma of what should matter in your lives. That the course correction we have undergone has given greater emphasis to balancing careers and lives,” she said.
“Happiness. Health. Family. This is what truly matters. It may sound simple, but happiness, health and family should also be at the core of your being.”
Provost Susan M. Collins encouraged graduates to keep finding ways to continue the kind of learning they engaged in at the university, to follow where their curiosity and passions lead.
“Sustained effort helps us develop the discipline and the expertise to dig deeply into something — to develop an idea into something that matters. And so, I encourage you to remember the joy that comes from mastering something that’s hard,” she said.
“As you go forward, I encourage you to combine your curiosity and your passion with your ability to work hard and to persist in the face of challenges. Being a lifelong learner in this way will enable you to lead lives that are filled with meaning, value and joy.”
LSA Dean Anne Curzan recalled the excitement and anxiety from when she was sitting where the graduates were and that “I wish that someone had said to me what I firmly believe now, which is that life has chapters.”
“You’ll go into some chapters with a plan, which may or may not be what actually happens, and some really good parts of chapters will happen on accident,” she said. “The key is that you don’t need to know the whole story or how it’s going to end. You just have to decide on what will make an interesting and worthwhile next chapter, and that chapter can be as long or as short as you need or want it to be.”
Faculty Senate Chair Allen Liu spoke to the societal stressors that the graduates faced during their college careers, from the drastic changes brought on by the pandemic, to social justice and climate change issues to Russian aggression against Ukraine.
“You may ask, ‘What is the value of education?’ To quote Dr. Maria Montessori, three-time nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize, ‘Preventing conflicts is the work of politics; establishing peace is the work of education,’” Liu said. “As you enter the society as a Michigan graduate and embark on your chosen careers, you carry a social responsibility to advocate and promote civil discourse.”
During the ceremony, four student speakers — Nicholas Brdar and Noor Moughni of LSA, Lindsay Anderson of the School of Dentistry, and Mingxuan Sun of the School of Information and Stephen M. Ross School of Business — reflected on their years at U-M.
“Above all, my experience at the University of Michigan has taught me to embrace the existence of difference as the necessary force for positive social change in our globalized world,” Moughni said. “As we move on in the world and achieve new depths, maintain a perspective that uplifts difference, and do not ever lose sight of that which differentiates you.
“Difference is a crucial element of life. We must withstand the initial discomfort of difference if we are to ever enjoy its fruits of transformation, solidarity and, ultimately, liberation for all.”