Graduates, this is the 117th commencement that I have presided over as University of Florida president, and it is my very last commencement.
Like you, I too am graduating. And, like you, after graduation there is much I will miss about my years at UF.
I will especially miss these ceremonies.
I love being here on this platform with my colleagues and our beautiful blue university seal behind us.
I love seeing your regalia and decorated mortar boards, feeling your joy and celebrating you and your accomplishments.
I am going to miss being called, by some of you, “Gator Dad” or on occasion “Your Gatorness.”
It was so fun taking thousands of selfies with you.
It was so fun giving students rides in my golf cart, shooting the T-shirt cannon at basketball games, showing up at a journalism class with 42 boxes of Leonardo’s Pizza, playing April Fools pranks and lighting the Holiday Gator.
Class of 2022, I’ll never forget you because besides enjoying my time with you as my last UF graduating class, I cheered you on as you made it through a pandemic, four hurricanes and tropical storms that shut down campus, massive construction everywhere … and as you experienced
Crocs in Sport Mode … Swifties and Harries … and … Noodle the Pug.
May Noodle rest in peace … and may all your days be bones days!
Looking back on our epic times together, both the difficult and great times, I now wonder what each of your lives will be like in the future, when we are no longer together.
I don’t know what your lives hold going forward, but I know what I wish for you.
I want you to have it all.
My hope that you will have it all is based on three things:
faith, love and kindness.
Graduates, faith, love and kindness are why I have had it all in my eight years at UF and throughout my life, and they are what I want to pass on to you.
First, may you have faith in the midst of an uncertain future and may you have faith in not just yourself, but in that which is greater than yourself.
Some of you are leaping to your first jobs or to graduate school.
Some are moving to a new place.
And some of you aren’t sure, or aren’t happy with what’s next, and you’re maybe a little worried.
Even if you have firm plans, you may, like me, be a bit anxious or unsure about your future.
I wish for you to approach those uncertainties, that anxiousness and any setbacks – for there will be setbacks – with the faith that your life has purpose greater than your setbacks and greater than your plans.
When I graduated from college my degree was in electrical engineering, I decided that I would change direction and become a pastor or minister,
so I went to Chicago to study at a seminary for three years and earn my Master of Divinity degree.
Then I changed my mind again and decided I wanted to teach college students, so in 1979 I went back to engineering and studied another five years in pursuit of a doctorate in engineering at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
My electrical engineering classes and my work as a teaching assistant were extremely hard because I had forgotten much of what I learned as a student before I attended seminary.
I was leading a senior design lab as a teaching assistant for the very first time and almost all the students in my senior design class knew more than me!
When I took my qualifying exam, that would admit me into the Ph.D program, I was at the bottom of those that passed.
The next few years were tough, but because I had faith and knew there was a purpose greater than my difficulties and setbacks,
I persisted and later became a professor in the same department in which I had such challenges as a graduate student.
I kept the faith.
Faith benefits not just individuals, but entire communities.
The mission of our university is to change lives through education, research, and service.
That mission, that purpose, gives me the faith that our university, our Gator community, can achieve great things together.
In 2015 we established our goal of becoming a Top 5 public university,
even though UF had never been ranked higher than 14.
Together, through persistence and planning, through a purpose greater than ourselves, the university’s stature and the stature of every one of our 16 colleges has increased over the past eight years and we can now claim we have achieved that goal of being a Top 5 public university.
If you’re unsure as you prepare to leap, and even if you stumble a bit, I wish for you faith. You may have some rocky days but you will land on both feet, ready to sprint.
Second, in addition to faith, I want you to have it all, through love.
Many of you have family members and friends here today or watching on-line as we celebrate your graduation. The reason they are watching you graduate is because they care for you, they love you.
I had two younger brothers. My middle brother, Mark, and I lost our youngest brother Phil to COVID last year. That loss has brought Mark and I closer together, and it has reminded us how much we loved Phil and our parents.
My brother Mark sent me the following text message on Tuesday of last week: “I have a vivid memory of Mom, 40 years ago today, sitting at the piano by herself playing and singing ‘He the Pearly Gates Will Open’ with tears coming down her cheeks. Lit a candle on our mantle in memory of Mom. Miss Mom.”
There were a lot of pianos in our family’s house at our home in Miami that my mom would play. Our father repaired and rented pianos. One of the vivid memories, Linda, now my wife, has of first visiting my parents, is that there were 27 pianos and an organ packed in our small house!
Just last Saturday I moved out of the Dasburg House one of those pianos that was in my parent’s home 40 years ago and which my Mom would play.
Graduates, I wish for you love. With love you will have it all.
But there is an important twist to love. Reciprocal love, the kind that exists between a son and his mom, is truly wonderful. But the greatest love, the love that will make the biggest difference in your life, is when you love those that cannot or will not love you back. The love that makes the most difference, including the difference in your own life, is when you love the unlovely, when you love those that you may not even like. Through love you can truly have it all.
There’s faith, and that’s love. May you have faith and love as you leap. Now I come to my final wish for you and that is kindness.
Kindness is unique in that by being kind, you often help others in ways that you can’t see or understand. When I arrived at UF in January of 2015 I received a note from a UF alumna, Sarah Thomsen, who I had never met or heard from before.
Sarah wrote me, “The reason I wish for you to read this is I believe everyone should know at some point in their life how their acts of kindness can have a large impact on people’s lives.”
She wrote that in 1979, her father was serving as an active-duty enlisted member of the US Air Force. At the same time, he was attending the University of Illinois pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering. He was struggling to complete a senior design course in order to graduate. I was her father’s teaching assistant. All I remember about the fall of 1979 is that I was a brand-new graduate student in engineering, having made that abrupt turn in my life after earning my Master of Divinity. I was struggling to pass my own courses and I was struggling mightily to teach that senior design course, which was so hard because I had been away from engineering.
Sarah wrote, “My father told me how you helped him with this course and through your help [he] was able to be successful … and get his degree. The small act of kindness that you showed my father years ago led to success for him, my family, and myself … I know I would not have the UF education I have today, or be able to serve our country through my career [in the Army] if it were not for people like yourself who planted the seed of knowledge with my father over 35 years ago.”
Again, I remember only my own struggle from those times. But I am so glad for Sarah’s dad’s memories and for Sarah’s email that arrived in my “in box” in my first months as president.
Graduates, not only when starting anew, but in all my life stages .. from Pastor … to PhD … to President … and in my relationships … it has been faith, love and human kindness that pulled me through and pulled me up.
Now, as I end my presidency at UF, and as you begin your new lives, … I pray that through faith, love, and kindness, you will have it all.