Civil rights attorney Bryan Stevenson encouraged members of the University of Michigan’s Class of 2021 to leave their comfort zones, resist narratives of fear and anger and stay hopeful — all elements that will help them leave a lasting impact on the world.
“It’s easy to be discouraged, but I have great hope,” he said. “And my hope resides in you.”
U-M celebrated Spring Commencement virtually this year with a video that featured remarks from students, university leaders and other distinguished speakers, as well as musical performances and a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected campus life.
Students were invited to experience the ceremony with friends and family at home, or in-person during an event at Michigan Stadium that complied with public health guidelines. About 4,000 students attended the stadium event.
“Welcome to the Big House!” Central Student Government President Amanda Kaplan said from the 50-yard-line, as she addressed graduates in Michigan Stadium before the ceremony. Following with brief remarks were Regent Denise Ilitch, President Mark Schlissel and Provost Susan Collins.
Gathered under a sunny, blue midday sky, graduates viewed the ceremony as it played on big screens in the stadium’s endzones and on the field. In small groups, and distanced around the west grandstand, they took photos in their regalia, clapped in unison as “The Victors” played before the ceremony began, and danced throughout the stadium at its conclusion.
Stevenson, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, has devoted his life to helping the poor and incarcerated. He said he’s never been more concerned about the “justice deficit” that exists in the United States and around the world.
“It’s easy to be discouraged, but I have great hope. And my hope resides in you.”Bryan Stevenson
“This horrific pandemic has exposed the many challenges we face all across the planet in creating better opportunities for people who are marginalized and excluded,” said Stevenson, who founded the nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative.
He encouraged graduates to use their degrees to advance justice and equality. He said the first step toward doing that is to commit to getting closer to the poor, excluded, neglected and marginalized.
“Because it is in proximity to those communities that we begin to understand things we need to understand about how change happens, how justice grows, how we create healthier communities,” he said. “Proximity is key to your capacity, your ability to make a difference.”
Stevenson also talked about racial inequality and the importance of pushing back against false narratives, such as the narrative of white people being better than Black people that was used to justify slavery. The legacy of that narrative still confronts society today, he said.
Stevenson urged graduates to step outside their comfort zones.
“You’re going to have to do uncomfortable things. You’re going to have to do inconvenient things,” he said. “You’re going to have to go places that are not always easy and inviting. But when you do that, you join the tradition of so many that have made a difference in the world, that have pushed justice forward.”
In addition to Stevenson, four other people received honorary degrees at the ceremony:
- Robert Cailliau, a computer science engineer and co-creator of the World Wide Web, Doctor of Science.
- Janet Guthrie, a pioneering race car driver, member of the International Women’s Sports Hall of Fame and former aerospace engineer, Doctor of Laws.
- Twyla Tharp, a Tony and Emmy award-winning choreographer and dancer, Doctor of Fine Arts.
- James Toy, LGBTQ and human rights activist and co-founder of U-M’s Spectrum Center, Doctor of Humane Letters.
In his remarks, Schlissel thanked graduates and commended them for their strength and resiliency in a difficult year. He noted how much they have accomplished during the pandemic, from making hand sanitizer in labs to help flatten the COVID-19 curve to conducting important research and treating patients.
“The story of the Class of 2021 is one of human potential, and it’s bolstered by the transformative power of education and research,” he said.
The president called on graduates to use their education to address another crisis: climate change.
He noted that the university is shifting its investment strategy away from greenhouse gas contributors and fossil fuels to focus on renewable energy. It also is working toward becoming carbon neutral.
“We will not solve the climate crisis if we’re merely an island in a rising sea of apathy and inaction,” he said. “We need all of you to apply your talents, the skills you’ve learned here in every academic discipline to continue to address this problem, and get your families, friends and future employers on board to help ensure that the cherished Michigan values of research, education and service prevail. This is how we change the world.”
Collins said the pandemic has brought great hardship and deepened our understanding of the impact of racism in society, from inequity in health care to daily acts of harassment and discrimination. The sense of urgency around the need to address climate change has also increased, she said.
“The future is filled with uncertainty. How we respond will shape our world for generations,” she said. “You, the rising generation of thinkers and doers, will develop and implement our responses, and this gives me great hope. You’re well prepared to imagine, to invent, and to lead in this unknowable future.”
The ceremony featured several student speakers, including Kaplan, who graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy. She said the pandemic caused students to miss a lot in their senior year, from in-person classes to football games. However, she said loss can be viewed as uplifting. We feel grief because we knew love, she said.
“From this perspective, the grief of losing a normal senior year is not the absence of experiences. It’s recognizing previous experiences filled with love,” she said. “Of three or more years of dynamic in-class discussion, powerful community advocacy, amazing student organization events, beautiful art and music shows, thrilling sports games and so much more, all of which has persevered through this year, albeit in new ways.”
The ceremony also included a message that was out of this world — literally. NASA astronaut and U.S. Space Force Col. Michael S. Hopkins congratulated graduates from aboard the International Space Station 250 miles above the Earth. His son, Air Force 2nd Lt. Ryan Hopkins, was graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Engineering.
Colleen Conway, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, also spoke, with the Michigan Union as the backdrop for her remarks. She noted it was there in 1960 that future president John F. Kennedy gave a speech that led to the creation of the Peace Corps.
“In the same way that Kennedy went forth from our campus to make great change in the world,” she said, “we trust that each and every one of you will go on to make your own great change, wherever it is that your journey takes you next.”