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‘You Have Arrived!’ Commencement Speaker Donna E. Shalala G’70, H’87 Encourages Class of 2023 to ‘Never Play It Safe’ (Video)
As a graduate student in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, Donna E. Shalala G’70, H’87 was no stranger to protesting whenever she thought an injustice was occurring.
It was all part of Shalala’s plan to never play it safe, and to keep advocating for what’s right and just. Shalala, who earned master’s and doctoral degrees in social science from the Maxwell School, delivered the keynote address during Syracuse University’s Commencement on Sunday, May 15, in the JMA Wireless Dome.
She challenged the Class of 2023—consisting of more than 6,100 graduates from all 50 states and 98 countries around the world—to solve the tough challenges that await them, to demand a voice in creating a better future and to become involved global citizens.
“You are opening a new chapter in your lives. But ultimately, you’re not going to be judged by your degree, but by your character. You won’t be judged by who you know, but who you are. You won’t be judged by what you earn, but what you contribute,” Shalala said. “When I was in your position years ago, I didn’t exactly know where life would take me, but I promised I would never play it safe. I’ve kept that promise and my deepest hope is that you won’t play it safe, either.”
Shalala has held prominent leadership roles in higher education and the federal government since graduating from Syracuse. She’s served as U.S. secretary of health and human services during Bill Clinton’s presidency, was president of the University of Miami and is Trustee Professor of Political Science and Health Policy at the University of Miami.
Lauding the Class of 2023 as “the toughest class ever to graduate from Syracuse University and SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry,” Shalala told the graduates that, as they embark on the next chapter of their lives, they already possess the skills to succeed.
“You leave this great university equipped with both the map and the compass. Your map is your degree. Your degree will open up new doors of opportunity and empower you to pursue your chosen career, or more accurately, your first career, second career, third career, fourth career and so on. The compass is something more intangible, but arguably more important. It is the spirit of community that has been part of your education here from day one,” Shalala said.
If they should find themselves struggling along the way, Shalala encouraged the Class of 2023 to rely on a familiar and friendly face: Otto the Orange. She credited Otto with two personality traits that will serve this year’s graduates well.
“Otto teaches us that a positive attitude can go a long way,” Shalala said. “Approach each day with gratitude and curiosity, with open arms, open eyes, open ears and open hearts.”
“Otto also teaches us that, as members of a community, we have a responsibility to treat every person we meet with kindness, with dignity, and with respect,” Shalala said. “Define the future in your individual relationships. The simplest kind gestures, however insignificant they may seem, can be woven into a brilliant tapestry of compassion, love and strength.”