Members of the fall graduating class of 2017, you overcame a lot of obstacles to reach this day, and I don’t just mean the papers and projects or the final exams you completed this week.
You came through Hurricane Irma. You endured Richard Spencer. Many of us had a cold that seemed to last forever.
Together we even survived Pokemon Go … and the dab!
Irma was my first major hurricane, even though I graduated from Miami Killian Senior High in South Florida. Thousands of students and employees went days without power and had damage to their homes, as did many of the friends and families here today.
But what left the biggest impression on me was how people helped each other before, during and after the storm. They welcomed evacuees or refugees into their homes, shared meals with neighbors and joined each other with wheelbarrows and clippers to clean up.
White supremacist Richard Spencer followed Irma to Gainesville in October. Like Irma, no one at UF invited Spencer and his presence generated fear and harm to those his speech targeted.
His and his followers’ message of hate and racism was overcome in many powerful and courageous ways in our community.
Students from the Lubavitch Chabad Jewish Student Center were on the Plaza of the Americas the day of Spencer’s speech, proudly wearing t-shirts and yarmulkes identifying themselves as Jews. The President of the UF Black Student Union, Dwayne Fletcher, was a visible presence in the national media, refuting Spencer’s message. Messages of love, not hate, were posted or chalked everywhere and even flown in the sky! UF professor Laura Ellis played the anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the bells of Century Tower’s carillon.
I’ve also been awed by yet a third major event still unfolding across our country. This is the hashtag “MeToo” movement. It has been amazing to watch women bravely come forward to identify powerful men who have sexually harassed or assaulted them. Because of the courage of the first “MeToo” women, others have had the courage to follow, inspiring still others worldwide. Thanks to these courageous voices, we are experiencing a sea change benefiting women and also, men. Our society has declared that the sexual harassment that was tolerated in the past will no longer be accepted.
The women of hashtag “MeToo;” the opposition to Richard Spencer’s message of racism; the many Floridians who helped their neighbors and strangers during Hurricane Irma; all have been poignant and timely acts of courage.
Graduates, my call to action for you is that you live a life of daily courage.
There will be occasions, like the events of this fall, when you will be called on to very visibly make courageous decisions or take a courageous action.
However, most courage is unseen and unremarked.
For example it takes powerful courage to face financial or medical hardships. It takes courage to move forward when you are rejected numerous times as you seek a job. It takes real courage to love someone who is unlovable.
I would like to send you out into the world with faith in your own courage, since you will surely need it in your lives ahead.
To learn from these experiences of those who crossed this same stage before you, I sent an email to our alumni asking them to share stories of times in their life, after their studies at UF, when they were glad they had courage.
My email went out on Monday, Nov. 20 at 2:32 p.m. under the subject “Help with my commencement address – stories of Gator Courage.”
Five minutes later, I had more than 900 responses.
Those were from alumni courageously sending their “out of office” replies!
The first reply from a real person arrived 13 minutes after my email went out and messages continued to arrive for weeks.
I heard from recent grads, and grads of more than 50 years ago. I heard from veterans of Vietnam and the wars in the Middle East. I heard from lawyers, farmers, business people, citrus growers, doctors, moms and dads, a nun, and a man who said he was a reformed drug dealer.
Many thanked me for my email, saying they were glad to have the chance to think about courage. Since I don’t have time to tell you all of the incredible stories of courage I received, we have posted many online on the president’s website, president.ufl.edu.
It was particularly difficult to pick the stories to share today, but I landed on four.
The first is from a very recent graduate about her experience working in New York City. The second is about bravery and its surprising benefits. The third concerns the courage to love. And the fourth is about the courage to do the right thing.
Hailey Boerema graduated in advertising just two years ago. Many of her fellow students were women, and she anticipated the same in her professional landscape. But when she landed in the advertising industry in New York City, she said she “quickly discovered the title of ‘Mad Men’ … was very appropriate.”
As a sports fan, she wanted to work in sports advertising. Today she’s an art director at Grey New York and the only woman on the creative team assigned to the firm’s NFL and Gillette accounts.
Hailey is often one of the only women in meetings, pitches and brainstorm sessions filled with men.
She wrote, “Not only does it take courage to stand up in front of groups of people to pitch new advertising campaigns, but as a woman I have to stand extra tall and confident to be heard speaking on football and shaving.”
Graduates, in the coming days many of you will also feel outnumbered and self-conscious as you move to a new city or become the newest employee at a company. When that happens, I want you to think of Hailey gathering her courage, refusing to be intimated and pitching her ideas about football and shaving to rooms full of men.
Jack Hudock, a 1969 graduate, wrote that when he was a young lawyer he was part of the defense team for a man in jail on a charge of murder. Their client was a large and imposing man whose mental state was in question.
As Jack headed to the jail to meet with the man for the first time, he decided he had to win his trust. So when the guards brought the client into the interview room in shackles and chains, Jack told the guards to take off the shackles and chains.
He wrote, “In that moment I was as brave as I have ever been.”
The request surprised both the client and the guard in charge, who protested. But “after a spirited discussion” the guard unshackled and unchained the accused murderer and left.
It was OK. In fact, Jack and his client had a long conversation. Looking back, Jack says his bravery built a bridge.
Here’s a photo of Jack today. He wrote me, “There couldn’t have been effective communication between us if either of us were afraid or suspicious. I believe courage overcame those barriers.”
Graduates, it may happen next month or in ten years, but you will be called on to be brave. I know this not only from Jack, but also from the war veterans who wrote me, and from many others, such as one alumna who barely got out of revolutionary Iran alive with her kids. To a person, being brave helped them and those around them. When you hear that call to be brave, I want you to think of Jack, those veterans and other Gators who answered that call.
Joslyn Ahlgren wrote that she and her husband, Jeremy, have two children, an eight-year-old and a 19-year-old adopted son. The 19-year-old moved to his own home last summer, and they had no plans to adopt again. But in January they learned of two siblings, ages 9 and 14, who were in an emergency situation and needed a home quickly.
The urgency raised huge red flags for Joslyn. She and Jeremy knew nothing about Lauren and Nelson. How would bringing the two children into her home affect her 8-year-old, Sterling? Their house only has three bedrooms. This meant the siblings would have to room together, not ideal for their ages. There was also the impact on the family budget.
The Ahlgrens were full of angst, but in Joslyn’s words they “felt compelled” to move forward. Just one week after they learned of Lauren and Nelson, the two moved in.
Jeremy quit his job so that he could be a stay-at-home parent, a financial sacrifice. The adoption was finalized July 31st. Lauren and Nelson are now so comfortable at home that they’re telling stories about family events that happened before they moved in.
As Joslyn wrote me, “Courage has truly brought my family tremendous love and joy.”
I received many stories of acts of courage within families. One alumnus wrote me about how he fought a long court battle to adopt a child of a different race. Several alumni wrote about having the courage to care for parents or siblings with terminal illnesses – and then having the courage to be with them as they died.
I know we have graduates and family members and friends in the audience who are adopted or who have adopted children … who have cared for aging or DYING loved ones … who have taken into their family students or others needing help … who have shown the “courage to love” despite the cost to themselves.
I wish this courage for all of us. The courage to give, to care, to love. The courage to be there when someone needs you, and you’re not sure if you have the money, time or capacity.
My last story is from Lance Frankham, class of 1964.
Lance wrote me that early in his career he was a low-level manager who had a fantastic staff of men and women. Because of his staff, he got a great promotion that required moving to another state. He was allowed to choose a few of his people to accompany him, and his choices included a woman who was among the very best on his team.
Remember, this was the 1960s! When his managers learned about his plans, he was summoned to the main office and told the company did not move women.
Lance didn’t want to hurt his reputation with the company, his big promotion or his career in the engineering and construction fields. But he also wanted to do right by his employee. He told his bosses: “This is one female we are going to move.”
Due to Lance’s courageous insistence, the company agreed. The woman moved and went on to a long and successful career. But the best part may be what happened later. Because of Lance and his employee, other women in the company followed in her footsteps.
Lance said the company eventually “made drastic changes and went on to embrace the concept of equal opportunities for all employees.”
Just like Jack Hudock wrote, courage breaks down barriers. Just like the Ahlgrens experienced, courage brings love to families. Just like we’ve seen with the women of “MeToo,” having courage helps others have courage. We think courage is about ourselves. No. It’s about others. In fact, it is about all of us.
You’ve heard stories about the courage to not be intimidated when you are in a new place or are sorely outnumbered, the courage to be brave, the courage to love and the courage to do the right thing. These are just four of many types of courage I heard about from UF alumni.
Others shared stories about the courage to leave their jobs and start a new business, the courage to celebrate their personal faith and the courage to live productive and happy lives despite life-threatening illnesses or being the victims of abuse or violence.
Most important, you heard about the courage of living our daily lives, of loving others and sacrificing to make the world a little better.
Courage brings clarity. As Florida’s own Zora Neale Hurston once wrote, “Lying is dodging. Truth is a letter from courage.”
And so graduates, I hope you not only feel inspired by these alumni, but carry their courage with you in your heart. Proclaim your best values through striving to live your lives courageously in your most everyday hours and your once-in-a-lifetime moments.
The musician Tom Petty was born and raised here in Gainesville. We lost Tom Petty to cardiac arrest on Monday, October 2nd. That Saturday, October 7, a new tradition was born here at UF in the Swamp.
Between the third and fourth quarter of the football game, the strains of the classic Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” began to play. The thousands of Gator fans in the Swamp responded by standing and singing Petty’s words of courage and millions of fans watched on social media.
“Well, I won't back down
No, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down”
I invite all of you to join with me in standing …
Turning on the lights on your smart phones …
And singing with me Tom Petty’s words of daily courage.
(Everyone sings “I Won’t Back Down.”)
Graduates, congratulations! It is great to be a Florida Gator. It is great to be a courageous Gator!