On the unfathomable value of friendship

“You are graduates not just of the University of Florida, but of the University of Friends,” UF President Kent Fuchs told members of the Class of 2017 at Summer Commencement in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

On the unfathomable value of friendship

Watch the Commencement Ceremony

Graduates, I now have the privilege of delivering the commencement address. 

This is your cue to fire up your Gator fidget spinners!

Will the members of the platform party please put away their fidget spinners and listen to my address?

Thank you!

Class of 2017, for you and your friends, this weekend is a time of pride … a time of reliving the crazy-great experiences you shared together …  And a time of sadness as you leave your friends and head to new places and new directions.

Traditionally at Commencement, we celebrate the achievement of those who have fulfilled all the requirements for a degree from this great university.

However, this morning I want to also celebrate something else, something just as important – and enduring.

Class of 2017, as you depart this campus, I’d like you to reflect on the unfathomable value of friendship in the sometimes unfriendly world in which we live.

I want to celebrate the friends you’ve come to love at UF and those friendships you don’t yet realize will change your life.

The novelist Jamaica Kincaid wrote, “Friendship is a simple thing, and yet complicated; friendship is on the surface, something natural, something taken for granted, and yet underneath one can find worlds.”

My own friendships have often begun shortly after I’ve met someone new, with an emotional connection that feels like a shiver of recognition.

Friendship is different from other human relationships.

It is entirely voluntary.

Since no one can require you to be a friend, true friendship is reciprocal.

A good friend may cheer you up, cheer you on, or help you out, but friends are not in your lives for some utilitarian purpose. Friendship is not about gaining advantage.

Ultimately, you understand your friends, and they understand you. This is a small human miracle, this feeling that you have someone who “gets” you and who you “get.” Naturally, without effort, without artifice.

I feel fortunate to have some such friends in my own life.

Previous to becoming UF’s president, I served at Cornell University in New York, where I started as dean of engineering.

Shortly after arriving I met another dean, Glenn Altschuler.

Glenn grew up in Brooklyn in a Jewish family. My parents were Methodist, and I was born in rural Oklahoma. Glenn is a humanities scholar. I’m an engineer.

Nevertheless, it wasn’t long before … to paraphrase a great song by the White Stripes … ‘I could tell that we were going to be friends.’

Glenn and I started getting together for 7 a.m. coffee and muffins.

I thought he was a little weird because he only ate the top half of his muffins!

But our breakfasts quickly started to outshine the morning sun in the light they brought to my day.

I was new to Cornell and new to being a dean.

I realized that I had found in Glenn someone who listened to me, thought carefully about my words, and cared about what I felt.

In turn, I wanted to listen to Glenn, hear his opinions, and learn more about the experiences that shaped them.

After being with Glenn, I am made better.

As the writer Joseph Epstein said, “Friends provide amusement, information and a bracing and beautiful feeling of human connection.”

Glenn was here on campus this year to give two talks. 

In the evening, we went to the UF basketball game here in the Exactech Arena.

The score was Kentucky, 66, Florida Gators, 88!

As the French philosopher Montaigne wrote of his friend in his famous essay,

On Friendship, “I should certainly have trusted myself to him more readily than to myself.”

True friendship allows us to get outside ourselves – to enter into the experience, aspirations, anxieties, joys or grief of someone else.

This makes us more compassionate and ultimately more understanding, improving all of us and our society.

Class of 2017, I know that many of you made close friends here at UF.

A week ago, I tweeted a request for students and alumni to share photos and stories of their “#UFBFFs.”

I got many, many wonderful replies.

We will share all of them at the end of the ceremony, during the recessional.

Let me show you a few right now.

[Tweets appear on screens]

Class of 2017 summer graduate, Alex Shepherd, sent this snapshot of his UF friends in New York City!

Congrats to Jordan Taylor’s friend, also graduating today.

This one comes from Vijay, a UF faculty member who met his wife and best friend while they were students.

Here are two more Gator friends from years ago.

Where did she get that Florida cowboy hat?

I want one!

Here are two Gators who were best friends in high school.

Here are four best friends. Two are graduating today.

Pam Harrison shared this wedding photo from 1988. I think Albert looks awesome in a tux!

Finally, congrats to Madeline and Ryan Chase and their family.

Madeline earns her master’s degree in today’s ceremony, but couldn’t be here because she gave birth to her Gator daughter yesterday.

Claire Haley Chase, the newest Gator in the Chase family, was born at 10:47 a.m. yesterday. She’s 20.5 inches long and weighs 7 pounds, 12 ounces.

Graduates, there is something I want you to know about your UF friendships. Even though you may be leaving your friends, those friendships will only gather force as they continue to unfold.

As much as your friends have already benefited you, they will have an even more pronounced impact in the future.

I say that based on my own experience with my friends from college 40 years ago.

One of my friends was my freshman roommate, Mark Murray.

Mark convinced me after my first year to switch my major from physics to engineering, because he was an engineer and was having more fun.

He then, the next year, switched to music!

However, I continued with engineering in college and graduate school.

My friendship with Mark led to my career as an electrical and computer engineering professor.

John Hammett, one of our suitemates freshman year, also became a friend.

John attended a local church, and at his encouragement I went with him on occasion when we were freshmen, and more in subsequent years.

I was so influenced by the teaching of the pastor of that church, and by my suitemate, that I decided after graduation to set aside engineering to attend seminary, graduate school in divinity.

Although I didn’t become a minister or pastor, my three years of theological studies and pastoral training have benefitted me personally and helped me in my career as a professor and university administrator.

And, those years in divinity school led to more friends, especially Linda, my wife and very best friend of 36 years.

Thank you, Linda, for being here today.

Without my college friends Mark and John, I wouldn’t have become an engineer, professor, university leader or met Linda.

Without my friends, I wouldn’t be me.

Of course, I could not have known this at my college commencement 40 years ago!

 

As you prepare to leave your friends, there is a part of your experience that is different from my own, and a part that is the same.

What’s different is that never before in human history have close friends been more likely to be separated by distance – or had the opportunity to stay in touch with each other despite that distance, thanks to texting, Snapchat, and even your Finstas.

What’s the same as my experience is that even if your meetings or connections with college friends become infrequent, their influence on your life will continue in the decades ahead.

And you will realize how much your life was changed by those you met here at UF.

Whether you have dozens of friends, or whether you have only a few, there is a powerful bond that connects all graduates of the University of Florida.

Over the decades you will realize that this university has been one of the most powerful influences in your lives.

Each of you will learn that you have a profound relationship with UF, and that your life has been changed for the better by your UF experience... and by your professors … by the staff you have met … by your fellow students … and maybe even by your university president.

You are a member of the Gator family.

Indeed, as one of our alumni said recently, “When you call on a fellow Gator, it’s never a cold call.”

Please stay in touch, not only with your close friends, but with your professors, members of the university staff, and with other Gators.

I would love to hear from you! 

My personal email is kent.fuchs@ufl.edu, and I very much look forward to seeing you back here on campus as often as possible.

Wherever you are, I urge you to heed E.M. Forster’s famous epigraph to his novel, Howards End: “Only connect!”

From shaping who you become, as Mark Murray and John Hammett shaped me … to listening closely to each other and sharing your honest opinions and encouragement, as Glenn Altschuler and I still do … and most importantly, simply being there for each other ...

You are graduates not just of the University of Florida, but of the University of Friends.

I close with an old Irish blessing that expresses my personal affection for each one of you.

May the sun shine gently

on your face.

May the rain fall soft

upon your fields.

May the wind be at your back.

May the road rise to meet you.

And may the Lord hold you

in the hollow of his hand.

Until we meet again.

And so … to you and the 2,700 other students who are earning their UF diplomas this weekend… congratulations!

It is great to be a Florida Gator and great to be a Florida Friend!

Watch the Commencement Ceremony