At the University’s first of three undergraduate commencement ceremonies on Friday, speakers celebrated the ability of the undergraduates to excel despite the challenge of a global COVID-19 pandemic and pointed out their duty as role models.
Sporting ornately decorated caps and big smiles, shedding tears, and waving to their families, almost 700 undergraduates from the University of Miami’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Division of Continuing and International Education gathered in the Watsco Center early Friday morning for the first of three undergraduate commencement ceremonies.
It was especially triumphant because the graduates endured a major interruption to their college experience during sophomore year, when they did not return to campus after spring break in 2020. Instead, they quickly pivoted to remote learning. Although the campus reopened the next fall—with the guidance of University President Julio Frenk, who put in place strict safety protocols to make it possible—the Class of 2022 weathered frequent COVID-19 testing, mandatory mask policies, and a host of other changes dictated by the pandemic.
“As you walked across the stage, many of you thanked me for opening campus and keeping you safe,” Frenk said. “But today, I thank you because everything we did during those two years, and everything that happened, was thanks to your ability to make short-term sacrifices all for a higher purpose, which was your education.”
Student speaker Ishaan Chatterjee said that students endured a decade worth of change in two years. Yet, for their willingness to adapt, students were rewarded Friday with all the traditional pomp and circumstance of a Coral Gables commencement ceremony. It was the first spring graduation exercises at the Watsco Center since 2019. It was also the first time that a female Sebastian the Ibis was unveiled. Madison Clinger was the last graduate to receive her diploma and wore the signature ibis feet as she greeted Frenk, then led students in an impromptu C-A-N-E-S cheer.
Throughout the ceremony, University leaders and speakers emphasized that the students’ resilience amid the upheaval will prepare them for the rest of their lives.
Speaker L. Rafael Reif told students about his unlikely journey from a small town in Venezuela to become the president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a post he has now held for 10 years. Reif’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled to South America from Eastern Europe in the 1930s, just before the Nazi regime took over. They did not have much education or money. But the couple valued education and made sure to instill a respect for knowledge in their four sons.
“I remember my father telling me when I was little ‘When you have to leave in a hurry, education is all you can take with you,’” he said. “I’ve carried that lesson with me my entire life.”
Because the family needed extra income, his two older brothers worked to support the family. But when Reif’s brother Isaac decided to go to high school, Reif did too. He also decided to follow his brother’s footsteps again, to college and then graduate school in the United States—where both learned English. The two were able to become college professors in the United States. Reif said his brother’s example showed the importance of being responsible, even if you are unaware that others are watching.
“As you begin your careers, graduate studies, or other endeavors, you never know who may be paying attention to what you do—siblings, cousins, co-workers, or even people you don’t know,” said Reif, a distinguished electrical engineer. “Being a role model does not mean you have to be perfect. What it means is this: whatever you accomplish serves to show others what is possible. It inspires them to dream a little bigger and reach a little higher.”
He urged graduates to leverage the knowledge they have gained at the University to improve the world.
“Those of us who have the good fortune to earn a university degree, have a responsibility to use what we have learned to build something new, to fix something that is broken, to heal someone that is sick, and to make a new product or design a better solution to have a positive impact,” he said. “Your University of Miami education is a special passport you will carry with you. It has no expiration date, and it will give you access to amazing opportunities, fascinating people, and enduring sense of possibility.”
Like Reif, Chatterjee was also encouraged to prioritize his education by a family member. His grandfather grew up in the streets of India, where he and his mother scraped by without much. Unable to afford school, Chatterjee’s grandfather would sit outside a classroom window every day and listen to lessons. One day, when the teacher discovered him outside during her break, she mistook him for a student skipping class and ushered him back into the classroom. It would pave the way for his grandfather to attend college.
“I like to dedicate this speech to my late grandfather and to anyone who has had to fight for an education, whether it is underprivileged youth in a war-torn impoverished nation—such as Ukraine—first-generation college students, or those fighting for their education across the world,” said Chatterjee, a microbiology and immunology major. “Thank you to the University of Miami for taking a chance on me.”