Request Info
Request Info

Speakers Advise Graduate Students to Embrace the Uncertainty

Thursday’s graduate commencement ceremonies featured speakers who recognized the pandemic’s grip on the world and urged graduates to thrive during this period of volatility and encouraged them to be the leaders of tomorrow.

Amanda Pearl believes in meeting challenges head on.

On Thursday, that perseverance paid off. She received her second degree from the University of Miami Patti and Allan Herbert Business School, a Master’s in Business Administration (MBA), a feat she accomplished while working full time.

“Completing my MBA while working full time and navigating a pandemic reminded me that complacency creates a toxic environment,” she said. “I hope the future holds challenges.”

Challenges and opportunities were surely on the minds of Pearl and the 607 fellow graduate students who obtained their doctoral or master’s degrees from the schools of Architecture, Business, Communication, Education and Human Development, and the Frost School of Music during Thursday’s afternoon commencement at Hard Rock Stadium.

The commencement speaker was Vicente Fox, the former president of Mexico, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for “his bold leadership and lifelong commitment to better the lives of those less fortunate.” 

President Julio Frenk, who served as minister of health during the Fox administration, called him someone who during his presidency “set out to improve the economy, combat poverty, promote equity, and create more opportunities for millions of Mexicans.”  

“I had the privilege to work closely with him in his cabinet,” said Frenk. “His support for the best evidenced-based solutions to entrenched inequities in Mexico’s health system provided a platform for enlightened policies and true reform.”

Before addressing the students, Fox praised Frenk for his work implementing Seguro Popular, the national health reform that expanded access to health care to 58 million previously uninsured people. 

Amigo and President Julio Frenk,” he said. “You made the miracle happen in Mexico.”    

Fox told the graduates that this was their time to celebrate all the hard work, long hours, and sacrifice that they devoted to nourish themselves with knowledge. He called them all leaders who had emerged from a year of a pandemic with “more experience, more power, and more capacity to do things for humankind.” 

But as leaders, he said, they should be drawn to compassionate leadership, a kind of leadership that is “outstanding,” he said.

“This is when we think about the other and put ourselves in their shoes and we do for others,” he said. “Selfish leadership will take you nowhere.” 

D’Jarius “Jay” Orien Jones, the student speaker, who received a doctorate in education, told the graduates that they had survived a challenging time to pursue academic endeavors—“a global pandemic, political strife, extremism, insurrection, social distancing.”  

But Jones, who is an active duty soldier in the U.S. Army, said that he had a message to all of the naysayers who said that the graduates would not make it to commencement. He read from a poem by Edgar A. Guest:

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done

But he with a chuckle replied

That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one

Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.

So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin

On his face. If he worried he hid it.

He started to sing as he tackled the thing

That couldn’t be done, and he did it!

In the morning graduate ceremony, Jim Yong Kim, a Harvard-trained infectious disease physician, anthropologist, immediate past president of the World Bank, and former president of Dartmouth College told graduates that new challenges during six different careers helped him learn new methods to succeed at the next hurdle. And the fear that often accompanies uncertainty actually proved useful to him.

“Now, I’ve come to realize that I feel most alive when I am in a new environment and I don’t understand the language being used by my new co-workers, and when I’m facing a mountain to climb to learn new skills,” said Kim, who founded the global health organization Partners In Health, and helped overturn the notion that curing drug-resistant tuberculosis in poor nations was not worth the cost. “Oddly I’m happiest when I feel most ignorant. And when I get to cruising altitude in any job, that’s when I think of finding new challenges.”

Both Kim and student speaker Chloe Jean Taub urged master’s and doctoral graduates at the Thursday morning commencement ceremony not to cower from uncertainty, but instead, to embrace it. It was the third of seven ceremonies that will be held this week to honor graduates.

“Part of our tendencies to think in either/or may come from a desire to feel safe,” said Taub, who earned her Ph.D. in psychology, particularly studying how stress affects physical health. “[But] as graduate degree holders, part of our core expertise is to recognize complexity, investigate it, and elucidate a more complete truth. We are uniquely suited to thrive in the grey.”

Hosted at Hard Rock Stadium to necessitate social distancing, nearly 550 graduate students from the College of Arts and Sciences, College of Engineering, the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, the Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, the School of Nursing and Health Studies, and the Graduate School received their degrees at the morning ceremony.

After a year of 54 video messages to students, Frenk said he was delighted to hold an in-person ceremony. He also encouraged graduates to take advantage of the new opportunities available to them in a world changed by the pandemic. Throughout the last academic year, he said, they have all learned how to be especially resilient, which will serve them well in any future role.

“We are bouncing back; and as we do, we will not settle for what came before. We will help build what comes after, so we may reach a better normal,” he said. “The world has witnessed how collaboration across sectors and countries—which led to the development of safe and efficacious vaccines—is the way to move forward.”

Kim was uniquely suited to talk about world collaboration. He was the director of the HIV/AIDS Department in the World Health Organization, where he worked to dramatically expand access to antiretroviral medications. He is now the chairman of Global Infrastructure Partners, a fund that invests in emerging market infrastructure companies.

But instead, Kim chose to touch upon some life lessons from his father, who left from his hometown in North Korea with only his high school transcript and crossed the newly created border to South Korea. Somehow, he was able to get into dental school. And one day, in between classes, his father scraped up enough money to buy some ramen noodles for lunch with friends. They had started eating, when a police officer tried to arrest the group for buying food from an unlicensed vendor. While his friends tossed their noodles and ran, Kim’s father took his food with him because he knew he could not afford another lunch. He often told his children about the experience to help them realize how fortunate they were growing up.

Years later, when Kim told his father he wanted to study political science and philosophy, his dad quickly pulled the car off the road. He told his son that he could do whatever he wanted after his medical residency, because their ethnic background dictated that Kim would have to learn a skill if he wanted to support himself.

At the time, Kim was surprised, but later realized his father’s wisdom. His career in global health sprung from experiences offering health care to the vulnerable, and began in Haiti while he was still in Harvard Medical School. It was in this hemisphere's poorest nation that he and three others founded Partners In Health, which has trained the poor themselves to become community health workers on four continents.

“My father knew all about uncertainty and wanted to protect us from it,” said Kim. "I don’t think that either one of us would have come close to predicting the career I’ve had. And if my father were alive today, I’m sure he would say, ‘you see, I told you to finish that residency first!’ ”

But as the economy evolves, Kim said that professionals will likely have to adapt to changing circumstances, like he has, and work together to solve society’s complex problems.

“Like my father on the streets of Seoul, you face a world of uncertainty,” Kim said. “Use it. Uncertainty means that the future is yours to shape. Uncertainty is freedom. Take that freedom and run with it.”

Written by Janette Neuwahl Tannen and Barbara Gutierrez
Published on May 13, 2021