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Clinton, others urge grads to solve world problems

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By Laurel Thomas Gnagey

From the president of the University to the former president of the United States, the speakers at this year's University of Michigan commencement drove home a common theme: Graduates not only should strive to do well in their chosen professions, they should endeavor to be good citizens who make the world a better place.
Former President Bill Clinton and President Mary Sue Coleman confer as they prepare to address graduates at Spring Commencement. Clinton, the keynote speaker for the April 28 ceremony, urged graduates to define their citizenship by how much they do to change a world "marred by inequality, insecurity and clear unsustainability." (Photo by Scott Galvin, U-M Photo Services)

More than 59,000 parents, alumni and friends gathered in Michigan Stadium April 28 to honor some 6,500 members of the class of 2007. Graduates like Patti Dowker, who was receiving her Master of Social Work, were looking forward to hearing the keynote speaker, former President William Jefferson Clinton.

"I saw him when he was here in '92, so this is very exciting," Dowker said before the ceremony. "He'll be very inspiring."

Clinton, who received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree for his life of public service and support of humanitarian causes, challenged graduates with the question, "How are you going to define your citizenship?"

Clinton told graduates they are living in "one of the most exciting times in human history."

"It is exploding with opportunity, yet marred by inequality, insecurity, and clear unsustainability," he said. "It is bursting with knowledge, increasing at an exponential degree."

Clinton described a world suffering from famine, disease and the effects of global warming, and challenged graduates to be a part of ending inequality.

"What is the fundamental nature of your world, the 21st century world? Most people say globalization. I far prefer interdependence, because this is about more than economics, travel, and even information technology," Clinton said. "This is about the increasing web that binds us together, the increasing diversity within all rich countries, and interdependence has no necessary value content. It simply means we cannot escape each other. Divorce is not an option.

"It's not enough to vote and pay your taxes. It is not enough, because private citizens have more power to do public good today than ever before."

Prior to Clinton's keynote, U-M President Mary Sue Coleman also encouraged graduates to remain involved with their communities and to serve others.

As illustrations of the importance of helping those in need, Coleman related the story of Clinton's upbringing and that of former President and U-M alumnus Gerald R. Ford—both of whom had difficult childhoods.

"Each young man would come to know the power of encouragement. They flourished under the love of their mothers, the mentoring of their teachers and coaches, and the benevolence of their neighbors. They found refuge in sports and music, and excelled in the classroom. As high school seniors, each earned a trip to Washington, D.C., where both saw a glimpse of their futures.

"These boys, each seemingly born under a dark sign, would grow up to become president of the United States."

Coleman said the University has prepared graduates well for the ever-changing professions they have chosen, but said being a citizen of the world is not solely about becoming the best engineer, writer, scientist or business leader.

"But more important than your achievements at the office, in the boardroom or in the laboratory will be your life's other work: that of being a parent, a coach, a neighbor, a mentor," she said.

Coleman highlighted the work of students who continued to serve while earning their degrees, including 2007 graduates Mathieu Van Assche, Leena Ray, Mark Bailey and Amisha Parekh, who worked with leaders in Rwanda on the problem of getting baby formula so mothers wouldn't pass HIV onto their babies through breast milk. The Stephen M. Ross School of Business students were supported by the Clinton Foundation.

She also acknowledged students who spent spring breaks helping Hurricane Katrina victims, who danced to raise money for children and who helped prison inmates express themselves through art; and she encouraged graduates to continue their involvement with programs that help others.

"Becoming engaged does not require traveling around the world to Rwanda. Becoming engaged means voting. It means tutoring a second-grader, being a big brother, or delivering meals to senior citizens.

"When you step forward to coach a soccer team or mentor your niece ... when you help clean up a local park or raise money to end childhood diseases ... when you find your own unique way to share your compassion, know that you will make a difference.

"And that one person you touch just might grow up to become president of the United States."

Dowker's prediction that Clinton would stir his audience held true in student reaction. "I'm really inspired by it to tell the truth," said Adam Rhoda, who earned a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology. "It's something you need to do to make the world a better place and help people less fortunate than you."

Jessica Glenn, LSA graduate from Detroit, said she and her friends already have been involved in their communities, but said she received new inspiration from Clinton's challenge.

"I think he presented the foundational problems that we have here in the U.S.," Glenn said. "I enjoyed how he didn't push politics but really stuck to the solid issues, and that showed compassion for the U.S."

Michael Donovan of Pinckney, who earned a Bachelor of Business Administration, also was glad that the speech was not about the campaign.

"My favorite part was I couldn't really tell what political party he was from," Donovan said. "I'm a business graduate but now I kind of want to go into the Peace Corps."

Other speakers, including Provost Teresa Sullivan, LSA Dean Terrence McDonald, Faculty Senate Chair Charles Smith and LSA graduate Abdulrahman Mohamed El-Sayed, encouraged graduates to take the world by storm. Sullivan began her remarks with a moment of silence for the Virginia Tech victims.

El-Sayed, who earned Bachelor of Science degrees in political science and biology and is a future U-M Medical School student, was chosen to make remarks on behalf of graduates.

"We're about to go out into a world that absolutely needs us," said El-Sayed, as he encouraged his peers to "spread that contagious Michigan passion that defines us."

"It's that we have the audacity to believe that we can change the world, and that each of us will".


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