Winter Commencement speaker Vera L. Songwe encouraged University of Michigan graduates to embrace a future of possibilities and persist throughout any hardships that may come along the way.
“An unrelenting dose of persistence makes the impossible achievable,” she told a packed Crisler Center at the Dec. 18 ceremony. “With everything you do, start small but persist and before you know it you will be changing the lives of millions and creating opportunities and building new bridges.”
Several hundred graduates, along with their families and supporters, filled the arena, with graduates taking seats facing a stage upon which sat professors and university leaders, all wearing their ceremonial robes.
Songwe, chair of the United Nations Liquidity and Sustainability Facility and co-chair of the High Level Panel on Climate Finance, was presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.
Other honorary degree recipients were:
- Rebecca M. Blank, an internationally respected economist and educator, and former dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, Doctor of Laws.
- Melissa J. Moore, chief scientific officer emerita of Moderna, Doctor of Science.
Born in Kenya to Cameroonian parents teaching at a university, Songwe said she was exposed to the importance of education at a young age. As she moved across the United States, she said, she learned the value of hard work.
“There will always be adversity, but persistence and the courage of your convictions will see you through,” she said.
Songwe said that this generation of graduates enters a world full of uncertainties. She said the four C’s — COVID, conflict, cost and climate — will pose challenges in the future. She urged each graduate to draw upon the lessons learned during their time at U-M to persist and find solutions for life’s difficulties.
Songwe said these times of crisis call for a collective strength, and graduates can seize opportunities to enhance the global community.
“With each crisis there has been a tendency to become more insular. However, the truth is, today, as I’m sure you have all learned through your Michigan experience, we are interdependent; we are more interdependent than we have ever been,” she said.
During the height of the pandemic, Songwe was the head of the Economic Commission for Africa. She said that while the pandemic was all consuming, she brought together some of the best minds on the continent to create a strategy to work through the challenges. They created a $2.2 billion financial structure that secured 220 million vaccines doses for Africa.
President Santa J. Ono also encouraged graduates to persevere in the face of challenges in life. He noted that throughout the past years, they have persisted in times of injustice, climate emergencies and the pandemic, and that during these times of hardship, the U-M community came together as a family to support health and well-being for all.
“As you go, you will also face challenges. I won’t lie. There will be difficult moments: moments of loneliness, disappointment and uncertainty,” he said. “It is in those low moments, far more than your times on the peaks, that you will need to remember who you are — that you have chosen — and still choose to be, a Michigan Wolverine.”
Ono told the story of Cornelius Henderson, a student who enrolled at U-M in 1906 as the sole African American in the engineering school. Despite facing prejudice and segregation, Henderson was not deterred, but determined, Ono said. Upon graduating, Henderson worked for the Canadian Bridge Co. as the chief structural steel engineer for the Canadian side of the Ambassador Bridge.
“There are so many other stories like Henderson’s,” Ono said. “And today, you will begin writing your own stories as alumni; stories that will inspire future Wolverines who follow you.”
Laurie McCauley, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs, praised the graduates for their adaptability throughout the past few years.
“Of all the traits you learn as a student, flexibility might be the most crucial. Well, today I am humbled to be standing before a cohort who has much to teach us all about adaptability,” she said.
She encouraged graduates to embrace uncertainty and enter their future with curiosity.
“You have the tools and the drive to continue to discover your passion and purpose, and in doing so, to build the prosperous, harmonious world you deserve,” she said.
Hibah Mirza, graduating from LSA with a bachelor’s degree in physics and psychology and one of three student speakers, thanked U-M for helping her navigate her challenges with mental health. She said that as a foreign student from India, she struggled with burnout and homesickness throughout her first years on campus.
“Like Icarus, I flew too high to the sun, with wings made of wax. And, like Icarus, I could have plummeted all the way down. But Michigan emboldened the fighting spirit within me,” she said.
Mirza said that with the support of professors and advisers, she took some time off to rest and recover. After eight months, she was welcomed back with open arms. She said she was excited and honored to graduate and become a U-M alumna.
Faculty Senate Chair Silvia Pedraza said she hopes graduates will shape a future path that brings them happiness and meaning in life.
Pedraza said that on a recent train ride to Chicago, she read Viktor Frankl’s 1959 book “Man’s Search for Meaning.” The book tells the story of Frankl’s time as a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. Despite the horrors and atrocities he faced, Frankl found the will to survive and hope for a future.
Pedraza said that in the book, Frankl “asks us to realize the importance of having a life that has purpose, that has meaning. For it was those whose life had meaning that most often were able to survive.”
This meaning to survive, Pedraza said, can be found in work, love and attitude. She urged graduates to pursue each of these attributes with determination and excitement.