Fall graduates from the University of Miami saw a familiar face at the podium for their commencement ceremony.
Last year, Donna Shalala was their president. On Thursday, Shalala, now CEO of the Clinton Foundation, came back to campus as the commencent speaker.
Shalala took the stage after she was awarded an honorary degree, making her the fourth of the previous five UM presidents to receive one. She was applauded by her successor, UM President Julio Frenk, a physician, and University of Miami Board of Trustees Chair Stuart Miller, among others.
“Today, for the first time, I can say with great pride that it’s great to be a Miami Hurricane,” she told the crowd of nearly 1,000 students wearing caps decorated with stickers, GoPros, messages of thanks and even LED lights.
Her return was significant for students who appreciated Shalala’s contributions to the university. For 21-year-old Arthur Soderberg, Shalala’s “tremendous” work bolstering UM’s medical school was the reason he came to the university for his undergraduate degree.
Shalala, UM’s fifth president, established UHealth-the University of Miami Health System, and under her tenure UM’s Miller School of Medicine became Florida’s top National Institutes of Health-funded medical school.
Prior to joining UM, Shalala was the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. She served as UM president from 2001 through 2015, joining the Clinton Foundation as president after she left UM.
“She had a huge history at UM when I got here,” said Soderberg, who wants to be a plastic surgeon.
Or, as master’s graduate Rene Mark put it, “She’s kind of like an icon here.”
On the graduation stage, Shalala, 75, related all of her advice to lessons learned from her “best friend” Sebastian — UM’s ibis mascot. When she finished speaking, the screen behind her lit up with a holiday-themed photo of Shalala and Sebastian embracing in front of a giant U.
“Our world is shaped not only by big events, but by the sum of hundreds of small actions we take every day,” said Shalala, who suffered a stroke last year but recovered quickly and returned to the presidency of the Clinton Foundation. “The simplest of kind gestures, however insignificant they may seem, can be woven into a brilliant tapestry of compassion, love and strength.”
Shalala hinted at the division facing the country stemming from the recent presidential campaign and election of Donald Trump.
“In moments of uncertainty, people are often tempted to retreat into timeworn divisions,” she told students. “The great challenge of your lifetime will be to embrace what makes us different from one another, recognizing that there’s a lot to gain by practicing tolerance and understanding — and a lot to lose in practicing fear and mistrust.”