‘Where do you want to go?’


As she asked University of Michigan graduates how they want to shape the future, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Saturday invoked the memory of her grandmother, who witnessed 100 years of history.

Whitmer used her 2019 Spring Commencement address — delivered to graduates, family and friends as the sun broke through clouds over Michigan Stadium — to remind the Class of 2019 it is poised to shape the future of the nation and the world.

A Michigan native, Whitmer was elected Michigan’s 49th governor in November 2018. She received an honorary Doctor of Laws during the ceremony.

Whitmer recounted her grandmother, Margaret Esther Elliott, who was born on an Ohio farm in 1913 and would live to be 100 years old, win the right to vote, witness numerous wars, and live under several presidencies during her lifetime.

“The world has undergone enormous change in this 100 years, and each successive decade the pace continues to accelerate,” Whitmer said. “Which might be scary for some, if they didn’t realize something about you. You are the best educated generation ever. And this year, the year you have earned your diploma, yours is forecasted to become the largest generation in the United States.”

Poised to mold the future, the graduates are now “in the driver’s seat,” and the question for them to consider is, “Where do you want to go?” Whitmer said, adding she believes their generation will do better than prior generations “simply by doing good.”

Photo of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer delivering commencement address
“So I believe you — your generation and the generations that follow — will be the engine that drives a course correction for our country and the world,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer told the Class of 2019. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Over the course of her life and career, Whitmer said she has seen dialogues turn into monologues, and technology amplify the voices of those who vilify others who disagree with them.

However, she’s also been inspired by young people, from those advocating in the battle against climate change to the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School who fought for gun violence-prevention policies.

“So I believe you — your generation and the generations that follow — will be the engine that drives a course correction for our country and the world,” Whitmer said. “It will take hard work, but my grandma would tell you it’s worth it.”

In closing, Whitmer said that while we all come from different backgrounds and have different views, we all have value and deserve dignity and respect.

“The best chance to meet the challenges we face is to stop yelling and start listening,” she said. “To recognize that fixing infrastructure isn’t just about roads, it’s about fairness and opportunity. To know we can improve the world when we fight injustice, intolerance and indifference, but not when we fight each other.”

Watch a video of the full commencement ceremony.

In addition to Whitmer, other honorary degree recipients were:

• Randy W. Schekman, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, Professor of Cell and Developmental Biology at the University of California, Berkeley, Doctor of Science.

• Mark di Suvero, internationally renowned sculptor and peace activist, Doctor of Fine Arts.

• Leslie Uggams, actress and singer, Doctor of Fine Arts.

In his remarks, President Mark Schlissel focused on the concept of change, both in society and on the U-M campus.

While society has seen the rise of the Me Too movement and increased midterm voter turnout among youth and Big Ten university campuses, student activism led to the construction of the new Trotter Multicultural Center and the renaming of Winchell House on campus.

Photo of President Schlissel speaking to the crowd
President Mark Schlissel spoke of change on campus and in society. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

“Purposefully contributing to change requires courage, trust and the willingness to listen and consider many voices,” Schlissel said. “It works best when trust is built by finding common ground, and when we reject the view that it is ‘us versus them.’ … This is how we can overcome the erosion of trust and begin to collaborate to work through our differences.”

Provost Martin Philbert said although speakers tell graduates at commencement ceremonies that the secret to life is to follow one’s passions, recent psychology research suggests a person’s passions are not innate or self-evident. Instead, “they develop through experiences and change over time,” he said.

“The takeaway from this research is that it is important to seek new experiences and to try one’s hand at new things,” Philbert said. “Odds are that these experiences will be challenging and even uncomfortable and that you won’t be very good at new things when you try them.

“But, when we persevere, we learn from the discomfort, our skills get stronger and we become passionate about what we’re doing.”

Photo of Provost Martin Philbert
Provost Martin Philbert told the graduates that if they persevere through challenges, they’re likely to learn from their discomfort. (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Invoking the hidden power embedded in the ruby slippers from the “The Wizard of Oz,” LSA Interim Dean Elizabeth R. Cole told the graduates she views the slippers as a reminder that “we all have powers we don’t yet recognize.”

“My wish for you, class of 2019, is that you recognize your power,” Cole said. “It is not magic; it’s not outside yourself. … You have the power to build community, to embrace our shared responsibility to future generations and to make change that matters for the world.”

Neil Marsh, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, discussed the challenges facing the world’s environment, and said the graduates’ “talents, energy, intelligence and passion have planet-changing potential.”

“You’re the people we need to reimagine economies based on sustainable businesses, to enact green policies to protect the environment,” he said. “You’re the people we need to communicate the urgency of this task and inspire us to action.”

Photo Abby Celt celebrating
Abby Celt celebrates her big day along with thousands of other graduates, family members and friends at Michigan Stadium. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

During the ceremony, several student speakers shared stories about their personal and diverse backgrounds, their Michigan experience, and how they contributed to the U-M community.

The student speakers were:

• Yvonne Guadalupe Navarrete, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

• Bassel Salka, College of Engineering.

• Avrahram Sholkoff, LSA.

• Kayla Williams, School of Information.

Sholkoff said U-M was the first place he recognized that feeling anxiety and loneliness was OK. The Wolverine Support Network taught him to prioritize his mental health, and he led a Central Student Government task force project to teach first-year students to help peers connect with mental health resources.

“To anyone hearing this, know that you are not alone and you matter,” Sholkoff said. “I’ve kept a small sign I picked up at (Counseling and Psychological Services) in my room. It says, ‘You are uniquely awesome and the University of Michigan needs you.’ Now, I finally know that.”

Photo of guys tossing hats
From left, Jonathan Jan, Joshua Miller, Alex Wolf, Sutton Bradley, Richard Lomas and Marshall Cherry toss their mortarboards in celebration during the Spring Commencement ceremony at Michigan Stadium. (Photo by Daryl Marshke, Michigan Photography)

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