Since I came to the University of Illinois in the middle of the 1990s, every May had been the most exciting time for me because of the university’s graduation activities and events.

Among them, three events stood out for me: the UI commencement speech, the thesis exhibitions at the Krannert Art Museum and the reception at the UI president’s house for graduating students and their family and friends.

This year, I had been looking forward to attending the commencement celebration events. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there will not be a physical graduation ceremony. The graduates of the class of 2020, including my daughter Selena, will not have the opportunity to listen to a commencement speech of their own. Instead, I will select some of the most memorable and influential UI commencement speeches I have read or listened to. Here I am going to borrow these three historical speeches with global perspectives for the class 2020 to fill the gap.

Back to June 10, 1908, was the 37th University of Illinois commencement day, and the highlight of that day was Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Dr. Wu Ting Fang’s keynote address. Though the event took place long before I was born and I was not there to listen to his address, some years ago I was able to locate his written speech titled, “Why China and America Should Be Friends.”

In reading and analyzing the speech, I realized how Wu demonstrated his understanding of the importance of global collaboration. To make his point, Wu first proudly talked about some of the most significant ancient civilization, achievements and China’s great contributions to the world.

He moved on to point out that: “What we (the East) required decades and centuries to invent and utilize, you (the West) have with your vigor and energy vastly improved and developed in the course of a few years, speaking comparatively. This nation (the U.S.) in particular has been fortunate in starting out on its national career with the experiences of the old world to serve as a guide, with the advantages of accumulated learning and knowledge to lead and to inspire. ....”

Wu then advised the 651 graduates of the class of 1908 of the importance of learning from the great civilization and building up their success on the entire human civilization and previous human achievements.

On May 15, 2011, White House Chief of Staff William Daley exhorted graduates to think globally, to embrace worldwide community and to take advantage of their constantly changing world: “The better your understanding of the world outside your state and outside our country, the better you will be able to serve your state and country.

“An email or text will never catch the richness of humanity like the sound of a voice. Do not allow yourself to forget the importance of human interaction in this digital world.”

At the end, Daley said: “I imagine you taking full advantage of this constantly changing world. The world is a big place. It is full of possibilities and it is yours.”  

Last year, at the 148th UI commencement on May 11, keynote speaker Larry Gies, a small town boy turned multimillionaire, encouraged graduates of the class of 2019 to find their “why” in the work they choose, instead of focusing on the “what” and “where.”  

Wang column May 13

A commencement brochure cover designed by one of the U of I class of 2020 graduates.

He advised: “Your impact in life will be measured by how you change the world and those you touch along the way. So do ask yourself, ‘How can I connect the dots to a higher purpose, not just for me but for all those around me?’ However, do not expect to have the answers today. Remember, it is a journey, and by all means, enjoy it. But do keep that burning passion you have today (on your graduation). Embrace it, feed it and develop it. Make what you do meaningful to you by finding your why.”

In facing such a difficult time during the Covid-19 pandemic I am offering my graduating daughter Selena and her classmates one quotation borrowed from one of the UI commencement speeches in the early 2000s, “Do not only ask what the world can do for you but what you can do for the world.”

Dr. Ian Wang is the curator of the Spurlock Museum and may be contacted by email at wangyu@illinois.edu