Commencement speaker shares how magic provides insight to shape lives


Spring Commencement speaker Brad Meltzer told University of Michigan graduates to draw upon the magic in their lives as they enter the world and continue to grow and transform into the best versions of themselves.

“Life will absolutely not be what you think it will be. It will be hard and wonderful and messy and rewarding, with more versions of you than you think possible,” he told the Michigan Stadium crowd at the May 4 ceremony.

“There are past versions of all of us, and the only thing I know for sure is if that past version of you could see you now, they would look at you in awe.”

Photo of Spring Commencement speaker Brad Meltzer addressing the crowd.

Of the 15,100 students eligible to graduate, more than 8,500 graduates claimed tickets to attend the ceremony, their seats filling the Big House field, while thousands of family, friends and supporters filled two-thirds of the stadium around them under a sunny spring sky streaked with clouds.

Meltzer, an award-winning author of fiction and non-fiction books, was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.

Other honorary degree recipients were:

  • Alexa I. Canady, groundbreaking neurosurgeon, Doctor of Science.
  • Judith and Stanley Frankel, philanthropists, Doctor of Laws.
  • Robin D. Givhan, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Doctor of Laws.

A U-M alumnus with a son who graduated on May 4, Meltzer explained there are four types of magic tricks: making something appear, making something disappear, making two things switch places and changing one thing into something else. He said each trick can give valuable insight into how students can shape their lives.

Graduates should keep in mind the first trick — making something appear — as they try to make the best versions of themselves appear. Meltzer told graduates to surround themselves with people who bring out their best traits and drive them to be the best version of themselves.

He said his then-girlfriend, now wife, was the person who gave him the encouragement and support he needed to write his first book.

“When someone you trust sees your potential and says they believe you can be that person, it opens up a path and inspires you to become that version of yourself,” Meltzer said.

Watch a video of the full 2024 Spring Commencement ceremony.

Meltzer said the second trick — making something disappear — can be used when faced with challenges that may be intimidating or scary. While it can be tempting to squash feelings of fear, he said, graduates should use these feelings to find momentum.

“So yes, make your fear disappear, but not because fear is bad. Use your fear. Harness it. Let them underestimate you. In the end, don’t vanquish your critics. Prove them wrong,” Meltzer said.

When addressing the third trick — making two things switch places — Meltzer spoke to the power of empathy. He told graduates about a time when he was a teenager living in New York and his father lost his job. His family of four moved into a cramped, one-bedroom apartment in Miami with two of Meltzer’s grandparents. Seeing the family’s predicament, one of their neighbors offered to leave her own apartment to give them more space and comfort.

“As you go through life, every person you encounter is battling something you can’t see. The solution is switching places and feeling empathy,” Meltzer said. “The world needs more empathy, more humility and certainly more decency.”

The final magic trick — changing one thing into something else — is essential, Meltzer said, because the graduates should never stop striving for personal transformation. He said people tend to get locked into a single state of thinking and living. However, if graduates continue their pursuit of knowledge and growth, they will never stop changing.

“As you leave Michigan, write in pencil and be unafraid to use the eraser,” Meltzer said. “The most sophisticated and intelligent people I know are the ones willing to challenge their thinking and admit there’s more to learn.”

Meltzer said all four magic tricks require effort. “Things don’t just appear or disappear by themselves. Making magic — figuring out who you are — takes work, time and intentionality,” he said. Although, the real magic, he said, comes from making memories and forging cherished friendships.

Watch a video about this year’s honorary degree recipients.

As he finished his remarks, Meltzer added, “The best magicians always have a final trick up their sleeve. Sometimes, magic is hiding in front of you the entire time.”

Gesturing to the rows of university leaders, faculty members and other dignitaries onstage, he introduced Michigan football legend Desmond Howard, who sprung from a seat wearing a black graduation robe and ran to the front of the stage to strike the Heisman Trophy pose.

“Here’s the thing,” Meltzer continued. “If you want to be the best magician, you’ve gotta top your last trick. Class of 2024, it’s your turn now.”

He then brought out J.J. McCarthy and Blake Corum, members of the 2024 national championship football team, who joined Meltzer and Howard onstage where together they revealed Block M shirts from under their robes.

The thousands of students and supporters filling the stadium rose to their feet and roared in surprised cheers.

Desmond Howard, Brad Meltzer, Blake Corum and J.J. McCarthy reveal shirts bearing the Block M from under their gowns
From left, Heisman Trophy winner Desmond Howard, speaker Brad Meltzer, and Blake Corum and J.J. McCarthy, both members of the national championship Michigan football team, reveal shirts bearing the Block M from under their gowns. (Photo by Erin Kirkland, Michigan Photography)

In his remarks, President Santa J. Ono also congratulated the graduates for reaching this milestone.

“I’d like to offer my most sincere congratulations to our graduates, for all they have done to reach this milestone, and for all you are going to achieve moving forward in your lives,” he said.

“We’re so proud of your achievements, and we look forward to all that you will do. You will always be part of the University of Michigan family.”

Presidet Santa J. Ono congratulates the graduate at the Spring Commencement ceremony.
Presidet Santa J. Ono congratulates the graduate at the Spring Commencement ceremony. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

Laurie McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, praised the graduates for their hard work and fortitude as they completed a rigorous academic journey in spite of their early college years shrouded by the pandemic.

She spoke of the meaning of U-M’s slogan, “leaders and best,” and encouraged students to strive to be the best version of themselves. 

“Leadership is not an identity. It is an action, and it takes continuous practice. For the last few years, you’ve practiced and worked hard to become your best self. And in doing so, you join a global community of leaders united under the banner of the maize and blue,” McCauley said.

Faculty Senate Chair Tom Braun told graduates that his daughter spoke at her bat mitzvah about the Tower of Babel. God destroyed the tower, Braun said, because people valued its creation and its impressive height more than the human lives that were lost during its creation.

“I personally think we have far too many Towers of Babel being built in our world right now. … Far too much importance is placed on ideals, positions and demands rather than the human lives that they affect,” Braun said. “I hope you are able to peacefully find your way to be heard, and allow others to be heard, in a vast and often confusing world.”

Oluwami Dosunmu-Ogunbi, a doctoral candidate in the College of Engineering and one of three student speakers, congratulated her fellow graduates as she made history as the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in robotics from U-M.

Dosunmu-Ogunbi said she felt “small and powerless” when she was younger, but felt a “fundamentally, raw human urge to be great.” She found the support needed to foster this greatness at U-M.

“Though our specific struggles may have been different, we are united in overcoming our challenges. We had the grit, the motivation and the support to be our best selves,” Dosunmu-Ogunbi said.

“As we graduate today, we must honor those who supported us. We do this by embracing their influence to create a better future — for those already here and those yet to come.”

U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro commissioning Reserve Officers Training Corps graduates
U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro commissioned Reserve Officers Training Corps graduates as officers in their respective service branches. (Photo by Eric Bronson, Michigan Photography)

During the ceremony, Reserve Officers Training Corps graduates were commissioned as officers in their respective service branches by U.S. Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro.

During the commissioning ceremony, approximately 75 pro-Palestinian protesters gathered at the rear of the student section and then moved down the center aisle, waving flags and chanting, “Disclose. Divest. We will not stop. We will not rest.”

About halfway to the stage they were stopped by public safety officers and university officials and then continued chanting throughout the commissioning ceremony and presentation of honorary degrees. At various times, other students shouted at the protesters and chanted in response: “USA! USA!”

After about 15 minutes, the demonstrators moved to the back of the stadium, guided by officers, and continued their protest — albeit less loudly — throughout the rest of the ceremony. The program was not interrupted and no arrests were made.

In his remarks, Del Toro said the newly commissioned officers “will protect the freedoms that we so cherish as Americans in our Constitution of the United States, which includes the right to protest peacefully.”

James Iseler of The University Record contributed to this article.


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