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Celebration of Scholarly Achievement

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    Urban farmer Will Allen is hooded during UM's midday spring commencement exercise. He urged graduates to help fix an ailing food system.

    A man of Bunyanesque stature at 6-feet 7-inches tall, Will Allen strode across the stage inside the University of Miami’s BankUnited Center on May 11 to accept an honorary degree. Towering over the podium and its microphones, he then gave graduates some advice: “Eat good food, and know where your food comes from.”

    While his words sounded like good fatherly advice, Allen, a former professional basketball player who competed collegiately for UM, had good reason for his counsel.

    “Food is the No. 1 thing in our lives. We take it for granted that we’ll always have it. But truth is, we don’t get very good food in this country anymore,” Allen said, going on to explain that many people don’t know where much of their food comes from.

    That is part of the reason why Allen founded and now leads Growing Power, a two-acre community food center near Milwaukee’s largest public housing project that provides high-quality, safe, healthy, affordable food for residents.

    Allen leads a growing movement, and in his new book, The Good Food Revolution: Growing Healthy Food, People, and Communities, the MacArthur “Genius Award” winner advocates for building a better food system that can feed—and heal—broken communities.

    Students at the morning commencement exercise perform the C-A-N-E-S spellout.

    During his midday commencement address, Allen, who was UM’s first black basketball player, talked about a worldwide food system wrought with problems, and urged graduates to help fix it.

    “It’s not just about putting a plant in the ground,” Allen said. Teachers must educate students about healthy food, and farmers must use better methods of composting.

    Allen’s remarks were among the many highlights of UM’s spring commencement ceremonies, which began on May 10 with a senior Mwambo exercise honoring the University’s black graduates.

    At the graduate degree ceremony last Thursday, Nilda Peragallo, dean of the School of Nursing and Health Studies, told graduates to “identify a rare opportunity to pursue a passion, then be brave enough to take action.”

    She told students about her own career path, which was shaped by a chance encounter with an AIDS patient in the early 1980s. While on clinical rounds at an Orlando hospital, Peragallo noticed that few, if any, of the nurses on staff went into a particular room to check on a male patient. So she and one of her students walked into the room, noticing a stack of empty food trays.

    Some graduates came up with creative ways to decorate their mortar boards.

    The patient had AIDS, which at that time was a disease many people knew nothing about, causing stigmatizing treatment towards individuals with the disease based on unfounded fears.

    The experience motivated her to do a study on nurses’ knowledge and attitudes towards HIV/AIDS patients—an investigation that later helped make HIV education a prerequisite for nursing license renewal in Florida.

    “Your experiences will be different from mine,” Peragallo said. “But graduate education allows us to contribute to society in our own special way. I look across this room and know that our country and our world are in great hands.”

    Peragallo’s words resonated with Natalia Villegas, who accepted her Ph.D. in nursing at the ceremony. For her doctoral studies, the UM graduate student created an online intervention for HIV, traveling to her native Chile to recruit 40 women for the study.

    The preliminary results of her study showed that the women were able to increase their knowledge about HIV/AIDS by looking at flash presentations on HIV prevention and listening to HIV-positive women tell their stories.

    Villegas called Peragallo her mentor. “She’s a great researcher and has so much experience in researching HIV,” Villegas said. “I learned so much from her. To have the opportunity to work with her has been a great experience for me.”

    The University's black graduates were honored at Senior Mwambo. Above: Vice President for Student Affairs Pat Whitely puts a kente cloth stole around the neck of a happy graduate.

    Joseph J. Echevarria Jr., chief executive officer of Deloitte LLP and a UM alumnus, delivered one of the more memorable commencement addresses, recounting his years growing up in the Bronx and some of the jobs he held before leading what is now the nation’s largest professional services firm,

    “I’m a Puerto Rican from the South Bronx. And that matters because it has a lot to do with what I learned,” he told graduates at the morning ceremony for the School of Business Administration and College of Engineering.

    He took graduates on a journey all the way back to 1968, describing one of the first jobs he held: making 50 cents an hour cleaning the bathrooms at a gas station.

    Echevarria recalled telling the gas station manager that he wanted to work out front, pumping gas. But the manager told him that he had to prove himself first. So Echevarria went home and talked to his mom, who told him to go back and finish what he started.

    Shortly after, he went back to the gas station, determined to be the best bathroom cleaner he could be, and after three weeks, he was pumping gas.

    He related that story to graduates to send them a message: finish what you start.

    During Joseph Echevarria’s passionate commencement address, he urged students to finish what they start.

    In his 35 years at Deloitte, he said, the one thing he learned that distinguishes people from others is their ability to finish. “But finishing is hard,” he said.

    “All great things in life are accomplished by people with passion,” said Echevarria, the highest-ranking Hispanic executive at any professional services firm in the world.

    He also reminisced about 1977, when the Son of Sam serial killer was on the loose and a blackout hit New York.

    It was the summer between his junior and senior years of college, and Echevarria was working at a body shop. He remembered the owner telling him to sit out front and make sure no one looted the business—an easy assignment, he thought.

    “But then the cars showed up,” he said. “I had a decision to make. Either I was going to stop them or let them do it.” Echevarria stood his ground, but unfortunately took a beating for it. “It’s the choices that define you,” he told graduates. “I was defined that day.”

    Much to the delight of graduates and others at UM's evening commencement ceremony, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, throws up the U.

    Susan E. Rice, U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations, spoke at the evening ceremony for the College of Arts and Sciences and the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science.

    “You are graduating at a moment of furious change and enormous potential,” Rice said. “And, time after time, the engine of that change has been your generation.”

    Since her unanimous confirmation by the U.S. Senate on January 22, 2009, she has served on the front lines of President Obama’s new era of engagement, helping to repair frayed international relationships and end American isolation on a host of issues affecting international peace, security, and economic development.

    During her commencement address, Rice talked of the Arab Spring. “Powered by vision and daring, linked by technology and social networks, young people from Tunisia to Libya, from Egypt to Syria rose up to reject authoritarian regimes. Enough, they said. Enough repression. Enough unemployment. Enough corruption. Enough of the tyrants who use brutal force against their people.”

    The School of Law and Miller School of Medicine were scheduled to hold their graduation exercises on Saturday, May 12.

    For more on commencement, including archived videos of the ceremonies, click here.

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