CORAL GABLES, Fla. (December 17, 2005) – Inspired by the words of the great Nelson Mandela, who called education a powerful weapon that can change the world, H.T. Smith returned home from the jungles of Vietnam in 1970 with a dream of enrolling in the University of Miami’s law school and becoming a lawyer who would defend the rights of the weak and the marginalized.
But Smith faced two major obstacles—classes would be starting in just two weeks, and he hadn’t even taken the Law School Admission Test. Without LSAT scores, getting admitted to law school would be “impossible,” Smith’s family and friends told him.
Refusing to accept the finality of that word, Smith, who grew up in Miami’s impoverished Overtown neighborhood and was accustomed to overcoming challenges, drove to the UM campus, and, without an appointment, asked to meet with the law school’s dean, to whom he delivered this message:
“Dean, I just spent 400 days fighting for my country in the jungles of Vietnam. They did not give the LSAT where patriots were fighting and dying. They gave the LSAT over here, to a lot of folks who were dodging the draft, and that isn’t fair. So I’m just telling you straight up: I’m going to be in law school this semester, in the first class, in the first row, in the first seat. That is what I gotta do, and you just have to do what you gotta do.”
Impressed, the dean worked out an arrangement. He would admit Smith under one condition—that he pass the LSAT the next time the test was given.
“You see, I know that impossible means it just has not happened yet,” Smith, one of Miami’s most distinguished lawyers and civic leaders, told more than 900 graduates at UM’s fall commencement ceremony, held Thursday at the BankUnited Center. “So when someone tells you that reaching your dream is impossible, just smile and say to yourself, ‘I can show you better than I can tell you. It’s not impossible. It just hasn’t happened yet.’”
Presiding over his first UM commencement ceremony, President Julio Frenk noted that 59 percent of UM students identify as members of a minority group. “You represent the fulfillment of our founders’ dream of a Pan American university,” he said.
The physician and former Harvard dean, whose inauguration ceremony will take place January 29, also touted the University’s diversity and said he is dedicated to making the institution a “model of an inclusive community.”
Smith’s message about nothing being impossible was one of three themes the UM trustee, Miami Law alumnus, and founder of H.T. Smith, P.A., shared with graduates.
“It doesn’t matter where you start, you can reach your dream,” Smith said, using his own life as an example of achieving success against seemingly insurmountable odds.
“I was born in a shotgun shack on the rough side of the railroad track in the toughest neighborhood in Miami, Overtown,” he said. “I grew up on a street called “Bucket of Blood” and it earned that nickname. My grandmother was a maid for 52 years, scrubbing floors and raising other people’s children. My mother was a beautician, and my father was a mailman. I had a sister and two brothers…and me and my brothers had to fight—going to school and on the way back home. That was part of the way we had to live to survive.”
The first African American to serve as a Miami-Dade County assistant public defender and assistant county attorney, Smith told graduates he attended “staunchly segregated, second-class schools, with second-class equipment, second-class facilities, and second-class money”—a status thrust upon him “solely because I was black, because my skin had been kissed by nature’s sun.
“Today, I came to share with you that I was able to go from then and there and that to here and now and this,” continued Smith, assuring graduates that they could, without a doubt, achieve their goals.
“At this great University, you have learned not only how to think, but what to think about,” said Smith. “You have learned that diversity is not just about inclusion—it’s about a feeling of belonging. You have learned that your dream, of course, is about your destination…But understand that nobody hands you a dream. To get there is the journey, and on your journey it will take 25 percent inspiration and 75 perspiration.”
Smith urged graduates to do something great, starting with being a great son or daughter, mother or father, sister or brother. Only negative emotions, such as envy, jealousy, revenge, and arrogance, can prevent them from achieving greatness, he said.
“So, reach for the stars, with the U as your launching pad and the knowledge you received here as your rocket fuel.”
His words resonated with Adriana Gonzalez, a program coordinator for the Executive Education Program at UM’s School of Business Administration, who received her Bachelor of General Studies during the ceremony. “It’s been a long and tough road, working full time and taking classes,” she said. “But it’s a fulfilling experience getting my degree, and it’s only the first step in my dream of getting my M.B.A.”