By Robert C. Jones Jr.
For full commencement coverage visit the Special Report: 2016 Commencement.
CORAL GABLES, Fla. (May 6, 2016)—Their final exams, research papers, and senior class projects were completed within the past few days, but now the nearly 800 University of Miami students who assembled in the BankUnited Center Friday morning for the first of three commencement ceremonies faced a more daunting challenge: solving the planet’s most pressing problems.
Oscar Arias, the former two-time president of Costa Rica and a Nobel laureate who received an honorary degree and gave advice to graduates at the ceremony, wasted little time in making sure UM’s newest daughters and sons were aware of the task at hand.
“This planet needs you to achieve the greatest impact you possibly can,” he told the students, all of them graduates of the College of Arts and Sciences. “It is no exaggeration to say the world is depending on you.”
And it is a world in crisis, he said, reeling off some grim statistics: 664 million people without access to safe drinking water, more than 800 million living in substandard housing, 17,000 children dying each day from hunger-related causes, 2.8 billion people surviving on less than $2 a day, and prejudice reaching the mainstream of political discourse in the United States.
“You are the leaders who will determine whether little by little we change our course and find a better way,” he said.
If anyone is familiar with finding a better way, it is Arias. When he took office in 1986 as Costa Rica’s president, Central America was rife with civil unrest. From the outset, he met with the presidents of nine Latin American countries and proposed an alliance to defend democracy and liberty and promote free and fair elections. His Arias Peace Plan led to the Esquipulas II Accords, signed by five Central American presidents on August 7, 1987. That same year he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
During his address, Arias, who used the monetary award from his Nobel Peace Prize to establish the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress, urged students to “make a difference in the world.”
“It requires not more money or more time,” he explained, “but leaders willing to consider a new way of doing things.”
He reminded them of the powerful words spoken by John F. Kennedy in his stirring presidential inaugural address some 55 years ago—that “Man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life.”
“If that was true in 1961, it is true today,” said Arias, adding that the world possesses the resources to put an end to pressing problems such as hunger and disease.
From investing too much on military might and not enough in schools to expending too many words on racism instead of on reason and understanding, “We’re simply making bad choices,” he said.
He told students to be creative, to be innovators, and to think before they act, and act with tireless energy.
“Stand up against those who say it is unrealistic to resist poverty, inequality, and illiteracy,” he said. “You will reach the end of your days knowing you have truly lived.”
Ashley Dixon, who earned her Bachelor of Science in biology, called her graduation “a major accomplishment.”
“It feels like the beginning of the rest of my life,” she said. “It’s exciting but at the same time scary and daunting because there’s that feeling of the baby bird flying out of the nest.”
She plans to take a gap year, working as a scribe at a hospital. Inspired by her father, who is a physician, Dixon plans to go to medical school.
Mandory Exume is off to Japan, where he will teach English in a Japanese school. “I have a passion for languages,” said the English major, who visited Japan last year through UM’s Study Abroad program.
For Barbara Soto, her general studies degree with a concentration in business management “has been a journey.”
“I’m the first of four children in my family to earn a college degree,” said Soto, 48, shedding tears as she lined up with other students in the UM Field House prior to commencement. “I started a family right after I graduated from high school. College was a priority for me, but I thought it was more important to be with my kids.”
On Friday, her daughter, Jessica, and son, Daniel, were inside the BankUnited Center to see their mother accept her degree.
Said Soto, “Today, I’m an inspiration for them.”
At Friday’s midday commencement ceremony for the School of Architecture, School of Communication, School of Education and Human Development, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, Frost School of Music, and School of Nursing and Health Studies, Stephen Lewis, the Canadian co-founder of AIDS-Free World who served the United Nations for two decades, urged students to see the “constant panorama of injustice and struggle” and create a more decent, civilized, and humane international society.
“It is a wonderful thing to immerse yourself in social change and to feel the sense of accomplishment of improving the human condition,” said Lewis, who is intimately familiar with that feeling. He has been improving the human condition for decades.
Before co-founding AIDS-Free World to expose the social ills—injustice, abuse, and inequality—that underpin and sustain HIV, he served as UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, deputy executive director of UNICEF at the organization’s global headquarters in New York, and Canada’s ambassador to the United Nations. In that capacity, he chaired the first International Conference on Climate Change.
Gillian Tett, an award-winning British author and the U.S. managing editor at the Financial Times who is widely credited with issuing some of the first public warnings about the bubbling financial crisis that exploded into the headlines in 2008, addressed more than 600 graduates of the School of Business Administration and the College of Engineering at the evening ceremony.
A graduate of Cambridge University, where she earned her Ph.D. in social anthropology, Tett has reported on an eclectic range of financial topics from around the world. She speaks multiple languages and is the author of several books, including The New York Times best seller, Fool’s Gold: The Inside Story of J.P. Morgan and How Wall St. Greed Corrupted Its Bold Dream and Created a Financial Catastrophe.
The School of Law and the Miller School of Medicine were set to hold their commencement exercises on Saturday, May 7.