Link to the PDF version of this article.
Spring Commencement, 2010
The best and worst piece of advice I received prior to giving my speech at graduation came from
retired Michigan professor Al Storey, who taught speech for several decades. When I expressed concern over how large the crowd would be, he told me, “Just think: It’s better to address 90,000 people one time than to address one person 90,000 times.” I wasn’t so sure.
Walking out onto the stage of the fourth-largest stadium in the world before a cheering crowd was easily one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life–perhaps second only to shaking
the president’s hand moments before. To represent my peers on an important day for our university was an incredible opportunity, and I am fortunate and grateful to have had it.
In the weeks leading up to commencement, however, the weight of the opportunity provided some stress, to say the least. It would be, almost certainly, the largest audience I would ever address, and the only time I would have the ear of the President of the United States. I was given a strict four-minute time limit for my remarks. How could I possibly convey a meaningful message in such a short amount of time? How could I present nuanced, original ideas while remaining straightforward? While nightmare visions of losing my breakfast all over the presidential podium–or, worse, the president himself–terrified me, nothing scared me as much as the thought of doing my best but remaining unremarkable.
At the risk of appearing political, I wished to address the ways in which my topic related to President Obama and, even more dangerous in Ann Arbor, to Michigan football. Doing so succinctly, meaningfully, and at least somewhat uncontroversially seemed impossible. With the help of Professor Storey and Professor Keith Taylor, I edited my speech down until I wasn’t
sure whether I was left with the absolute core of my intended message or nothing at all.
In the end, I was fairly happy with my speech. While a writer’s feelings toward a piece of writing that he has tirelessly revised are never quite harmonious, I feel that I did just about the best I could have in both writing and delivery. Still, while I was well received, some people’s comments afterwards surprised me. Some felt I’d roasted Rich Rodriguez, which was never my intent. One woman thanked me for “saying what needed to be said.” I’m not sure what exactly I said to provoke such a strong response.
As someone hoping to work as a speechwriter, I’ve learned from my experience. When listening to a speech, each audience member possesses a different mindset – each has had different life stories, different heartbreaks and revelations, different interactions with professors and sports
teams and elected officials, different foods for breakfast that morning. A statement that is clear and simple in the mind of the speaker can be interpreted any number of ways.
Perhaps if I’d sat down 90,000 times with each individual member of the audience and fully explained myself in dialogue, I’d have been better understood. But I also would have needed more than four minutes.
President Obama, distinguished guests, faculty, friends, family, and fellow graduates: today, we graduates are forced to change, to move forward in a new direction. But change is a funny thing. We desire change, yet we fear it. We say things like, “I just want to make a difference in the
world,” yet we grow uneasy when the world around us changes. We invent new technologies, then worry that they will ruin our values and traditions. We want instant gratification, without hard
work or sacrifice.
President Obama was elected on his promise of “change we can believe in,” but after he took office, he found many resistances to change. As a nation, we have found that changes can bring us together, and they can tear us apart.
We can see our ambivalence about change here on campus. After the horror of a certain football game played here a few years ago, many were thrilled when Michigan hired a coach who would bring a new energy and style of football to our school. But after two seasons, change has been slow and full of growing pains.
Today, we must reexamine our views toward change. We must embrace change, and realize that with every change comes new opportunity. While most of us can no longer spend our Fridays at Charlie’s and our Sundays at the UGLi, we will create new traditions and find new goals to achieve. With what we have attained at the University of Michigan, we will become the teachers, doctors, lawyers, and engineers that will shape the future of the country.
Of course, there are some changes that cannot be spun in a positive light. After all, there is no deli in the world that can match the pastrami at Zingerman’s, and no burger whose grease is quite as delectable as the grease of a Blimpy Burger.
But still, we must embrace change, and follow the lead of Michigan graduates who have changed the world: Arthur Miller, who in 1949 redefined American theater with his play Death of a Salesman; Margaret Brewer, who in 1978 became the first woman to achieve the rank of General in the United States Marine Corps; and Gerald Ford, who after being named the most valuable player on the 1934 Michigan football team went on to become the leader of the free world.
As we graduate today, I encourage us to embrace change and realize that we can make a difference. We can join the ranks of over 400,000 living Michigan alumni. And when we’ve
reached our goals, we can look back on our time together at Michigan and be grateful to the University that has provided us with the tools and the will to make the world a better place.