Wisdom for Graduates: ‘No One’s Gifts Are Worth Throwing Away’

Advice, encouragement, and perspective from UConn's 2024 commencement ceremonies

Graduates toss their caps into the air.

The College of Engineering Commencement ceremony at Gampel Pavilion on May 4, 2024. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

More than 8,000 degrees were awarded across 17 commencement ceremonies at the University of Connecticut this month, and along with them came advice, insight, and wise counsel from the speakers and honorary degree recipients who addressed the graduates.

Among those honored guests was a famous member of the UConn family: Maya Moore Irons ’11 (CLAS), the basketball legend who has made criminal justice reform her life’s work. She spoke powerfully about her journey to becoming an activist, and how that experience helped her understand every community as a team, ideally with the same mutual support and pursuit of excellence that characterized her teams at UConn and in the WNBA.

Some of the highlights of other speeches by guests, students, and faculty members throughout the three-day weekend include:

Ramani Durvasula ’89 MS, awarded an honorary Doctor of Science degree by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences: “Don’t lose your giddiness. Never be so cool that you don’t experience childlike joy. I know people worry that kind of silly, messy sense of wonder would make us vulnerable, and we put such importance on being indifferent that we stop being amazed.  It’s OK and even necessary to be impressed and wowed.”

David Souder, Senior Associate Dean for Faculty and Research in the School of Business: “Once you drive down Discovery Way for the final time, don’t forget us. Send an email to your professors and your mentors and let us know how you’re doing. Reach out to see what companies are hiring like crazy. Ask us to connect you to someone who can advance your career game. We are invested in your success.”

Lynn Malerba stands on stage while receiving her honorary degree.
Lynn Malerba ’08 MPA, chief of the Mohegan Tribe and treasurer of the United States, stands to receive an honorary degree during the School of Nursing commencement ceremony at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on May 4, 2024. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)(Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Madelyn Engel ’24 (CAHNR), student speaker at the commencement ceremony for the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources: “CAHNR has been a powerful force in my journey of well-being. From the friends I have made here, to the therapeutic integration with animals and the outdoors, to the support and efforts of the incredible staff. Yes, I have learned through academics, but I have also learned how to act meaningfully and give back, how to approach each moment with gratitude, how to care for myself and my environment—how to savor life—and those are invaluable things that I will hold with me for the rest of my life.”

Ruth Simmons, awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by the Graduate School, speaking at the ceremony for doctoral candidates: “With the excellent resources here at UConn, you have had the privilege of studying at the highest level. Your unique opportunity will, I hope, translate into insights about the range of talent and ability across every community and way of life. We count on you to bring clarity to the confused state of our country, in which vilifying groups has become an approach sanctioned by far too many. Your education obligates you to join the fight for rights and dignity of those who would be marginalized by others. Be visible and outspoken in your efforts. Success purchased through silence is success not worth having.”

Kazem Kazerounian, Dean of the College of Engineering: “History shows us that progress often follows disruption. Yes, AI is progressing swiftly, potentially outpacing human intellect. But remember: We possess something AI cannot emulate – our humanity. Reflect on this: We, as humans, possess emotions, empathy, and the ability to form profound connections. We create and savor art, music, and literature. We have a knack for forging deep connections, and an inexplicable love for midnight pizza during finals. We love, we dream, we innovate from a place of passion unique to humans.”

Daniel Fata ’94 (CLAS), awarded an honorary Doctor of Laws degree by the Graduate School, speaking at the ceremony for master’s candidates: “Be honest with yourself, and be OK with failing. I have failed at most everything I’ve ever done. Today you see my successes, but I wouldn’t be here if I let a failure define or stop me. I never stop trying. And remember: It’s not that you failed, it’s what you learned about yourself as a result of the failure, and how you use that as a teachable moment. I’ve always told my bosses and my family: I will make mistakes, but I will try not to make the same mistake twice.”

A student holds up her diploma case.
Happy graduates of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) on May 5, 2024. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

Kiana Foster-Mauro ’20 (ED), ’21 MA, 2024 Connecticut Teacher of the Year, keynote speaker at the commencement ceremony for the Neag School of Education: “Our world is ever-changing, and we aren’t promised a lot in this life. We aren’t promised days or minutes. We aren’t promised ease or a ‘normal’ year of anything. How beautiful it is, then, that each and every one of you, in spite of this, had the courage to take the first step and to embrace the unknown — that each of you had the audacity to try. I am in awe of you and your audacity to try.”

Chief Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba ’08 MPA, U.S. Treasurer, awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree by the School of Nursing: “Graduates, you will immediately forget this speech once you walk across this stage and hold your hard won diploma in your hands and rightly so.  However, what you will remember are the people who have walked your path with you, who have cheered you on each step of the way—your families, your friends, your favorite professor.  They are gifted to you from the Universe.  Remember that of all the things you will accomplish in your lifetime, nothing will be more important than your relationships with them.”

Alexis Hunter Frankel ’24 (PHARM), valedictorian, School of Pharmacy BS commencement: “One of the most important things I have learned in pharmacy school is to do what makes you happy. I love school and I always have. I had a diary when I was younger, and it was not your typical diary. It was a diary of the periodic table, and I had an entry for each element. Diagrams included. I even made a board game for the periodic table when I was 12 years old. I knew I always wanted to go to college, and even told my teacher in 5th grade that, and she told me I was thinking way too early. Well, she was wrong because it came way too fast, and I still felt unprepared.”

Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Anne D’Alleva, speaking at the commencement ceremony for Bachelor of General Studies graduates: “Our world needs the kind of skills and perspectives you bring to the table now more than ever. Whether you’re addressing global challenges, contributing to your local communities, or innovating in your future careers, your broad educational foundation empowers you to adapt and thrive in an ever-changing landscape. As you stand on the brink of new beginnings, remember that your education does not end today. Learning is a lifelong process, and I encourage you to remain curious and open to new experiences. Continue to seek knowledge, challenge assumptions, and embrace opportunities.”

President Radenka Maric lifts an arm in celebration during a commencement ceremony.
President Radenka Maric speaks during the School of Nursing commencement ceremony at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on May 4, 2024. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

Victoria Fal ’22 (PHARM) ’24 Pharm.D., salutatorian, School of Pharmacy Pharm.D. commencement: “Through meaningful interactions and hands-on experiences, we not only honed our clinical skills but also cultivated professional networks and a deeper understanding of the multifaceted nature of pharmacy practice. Now, here we are on graduation day. We may be leaving behind the familiar comforts and routines of the past four years, but we also embrace the boundless horizon of new opportunities that awaits us. It’s a moment of transition, stepping into a world where the possibilities are limitless, and the timeline is yet to be defined.”

Irene Pham ’24 (SFA), student speaker, commencement ceremony for the School of Fine Arts: “We have to share our unshared story, and with that comes the answers to the unquestioned, celebrations to the unacknowledged, and love to the unrecognized.  A lot of us creatives ask ourselves how we fit into the specific roles that this vague mishmash of an industry gives us. The truth is, we have to forge it ourselves however way we can, and the only way we can do that is to tell the stories we embody and the stories we hope to hear. All of you have something to share, and because of that, I know you all have the ability to create something great.”

Connecticut Department of Children and Families Commissioner Jodi Hill-Lilly, keynote speaker, commencement ceremony for the School of Social Work: “Know your superpowers. Each of us brings unique interpersonal gifts to our world – gifts like patience, enthusiasm, creativity, laughter, encouragement, and generosity. Superpowers are closely aligned with your passions. They are attributes that have been with you most of your life. It’s what you have been born to do and purposed to do. The key is to know your superpowers, because once you have named them, you can engage them. Turn to your fellow grad and ask—What’s your superpower? I got my superpowers of encouragement, determination, and joy from my dad, and my superpowers of spiritual discernment and the keen ability to influence others from my mom. I never set out to be a commissioner – I set out to help others and make a difference.”

Students celebrate at commencement.
Graduates celebrate during the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) commencement ceremony at Gampel Pavilion on
May 5, 2024. (Sean Flynn/UConn Photo)

UConn President Radenka Maric, keynote speaker, commencement ceremony for the School of Dental Medicine and the School of Medicine: “Empathy, compassion, and kindness. There is no iPhone app for these, no algorithm, no graph or chart that can adequately express what they mean. But these are essential values that are in short supply today. This makes them all the more precious when we find them in our doctors. Over the course of your careers, you will share good news and bad news. You will be with people in their greatest moments and on their worst days. You will play a role in countless lives that no one else can occupy – that of healer. Your patients will appreciate your skill, your wisdom, and your confidence – but above all, they will treasure your empathy, compassion, and kindness.”