Joy needs to be felt, and joy needs to be shared

Graduates, we have now come to the part of the ceremony known as the commencement address.

As a result, you may be wondering …

Why didn’t I get a UF alert about this?

Will this speech take a long time? Will it take even longer than when I had to fill up that little tube with saliva?

If I check my phone during this speech, will Honorlock bust me?

Class of 2021, what an experience you have had! You may have spent hours at Library West or Marston or studied in your hammock along the shore of Lake Alice during lockdown. You may have enjoyed Krishna Lunch on the Plaza or cheered on Gator athletes in the Swamp, the O’Dome or as they won 17 Olympic medals. Most of you had your brains probed by swabs, ears yanked by masks and feet separated by six-feet-apart stickers at Chick-fil-A or Trader Joe’s; You may have been positive, negative, symptomatic, asymptomatic, isolated or quarantined; You filled virtual squares on Zooms and real classrooms on campus and you experienced Rainsville and Hyflex and closings and openings and capacity limits and meal deliveries and travel bans and jabs and Tiger King and Squid Game and rushing to accept yet another Duo notification on your phones.

Your experience has been historic, and I want you to know that the emotions that I am experiencing right now, standing before you as your university president, are gratitude and joy.

I’m grateful for your strength and resilience that carried you through. I’m grateful that you and your loved ones are here in the Exactech Arena, and I am so grateful that you are triumphantly graduating today and we are celebrating you.

Graduates, watching you and your class has affirmed for me a belief I’ve always held dear. Life is not about gritting your teeth and getting through the obstacles. It’s not about robotically advancing to the next milestone, whether that is earning your bachelor’s or master’s degree, or climbing up the career ladder.

It’s about being rooted in joy. Joy in times like today that are glorious celebrations and times like the past 21 months that are incredibly difficult challenges.

Joy makes our lives more than a sequence of events or accomplished goals. Shared joy energizes and electrifies our relationships and our communities. The difficulty of sharing joy during the pandemic — whether over dinner, or dancing, or in deep conversation with a best friend — was part of what made COVID so challenging.

But joy needs to infuse the human spirit even in the worst of circumstances. Joy needs to be felt. And joy needs to be shared.

I wish there was time enough for me to tell stories about each one of you from the past 21 months. Let me tell just two stories from your graduating class, and Provost Glover later will tell a third.

Your classmate Rachel Rosen is earning her degree in music education.

Rachel spent her junior year practicing flute for her junior recital, an hour-long performance required for music majors. She worked at it here on campus and in her bedroom, trying not to disturb her neighbors. This continued through fall 2019, winter break, the spring and throughout her 2020 spring break, when she was at her parents’ home in Winter Springs.

The junior recital is a very big deal for students in the School of Music. It is attended by dozens of professors, family members, friends and students. The atmosphere is full of stress and drama -- followed, with success, by cake, punch, smiles, relief and joy.

Three days before Rachel’s recital, as COVID first started to spread across our campus after spring break 2020, I told everyone we were moving classes online and asked students to leave Gainesville and go home. For Rachel, that meant all her practice was for naught. There would be no in-person performances by her or by any other musicians for many months to come.

Rachel completed her academic requirement by playing for an audience of one, her School of Music Professor Kristin Stoner. But she was determined to perform. So when she returned to UF in fall of 2020, she signed up to give a voluntary senior recital. Again, she spent weeks practicing, planning a triumphant spring 2021 public performance – and again, her hopes were dashed by COVID restrictions.

This fall, in her final year, Rachel marshalled her hopes to make one last try. This time, her weeks of practice did not let her down. Rachel finally performed in front of a live audience as a solo artist in a concert organized by Professor Stoner.

What she felt most strongly was joy.

As she told us, “We don’t do music to play it in our bedrooms. We do music to share it with the world.”

In Rachel’s spirit of joyfully sharing her music with the world, here she is at her live concert, accompanied by Pianist Brian Hargrove.

Graduates, the pandemic has been a time of stories about heroes, like the medical workers who saved so many lives. But while I’m so grateful for those life-saving larger-than-life heroes, each one of you also overcame serious obstacles to reach this day, whether personal, financial, academic or having to do with family, due to COVID or not due to COVID.

Each one of you is a hero. And I would suggest that joy, found and shared, helped you be heroic.

Let me share another story from the past 21 months about a second graduating classmate.

Justin Bright is earning his master’s in communications. He’s the one with the camera.

Justin skateboarded competitively in high school and began focusing on shooting skateboarding videos while a UF journalism undergrad. After finishing his undergrad degree at home in the pandemic spring of 2020, he took a risk, heading to Chicago to join two friends in creating their own skateboard company.

The Windy City was in full shutdown, so, by necessity, the three spent much time together skateboarding, hand-building prototype boards and conceptualizing the company’s brand. Those intense months together became the foundation for Justin’s master’s degree shaping gritty branding and advertising campaigns for his company.

Justin learned through on-line courses, spending months in credit-earning internships. The time he might have been on campus, he instead devoted to throwing all his creativity into the company and its brand.

That brand is “Sapient” because, as Justin says, it sounds cool -- but also because he sees skateboarding as an inherently joyful activity for all of us “Sapiens.”

Just like Rachel sharing the joy of her music with the world, Justin brings the joy of skateboarding to the world. And, just like playing the flute, skateboarding takes considerable practice, as you can see in this video shot by Justin!

Justin has a job waiting for him as Media Production Director at Sapient. Rachel is heading to graduate school with plans to be a high school band director. Their paths are unique, just like your own. I expect their paths in the future will include setbacks and difficulties, just like your own. However, fundamentally, their paths are about being rooted in joy, just like you.

Graduates, joy is natural, but it doesn’t come naturally. Sometimes I have to remind myself to be purposeful in joy and to be intentional in sharing and expressing joy.

The pandemic was often that way for me due to its effects on the university. Every day brought new logistical challenges, health concerns, expenses, controversies and new dashed hopes of normalcy. The stakes were high and having to face them unceasingly was wearying.

But just as it was a challenging time to be president, so it was also a wonderful time to be president. UF struggled to cope with more than $70M in losses due to COVID expenditures and lost revenue from campus shutting down. But over that same period of loss, the university stayed focused on increasing its faculty size by more than 500, more than any other university in the nation. Major new UF facilities continued to rise across campus. Every year a higher percentage of alumni gave back to the university, and I expect this month to be an all-time record for philanthropy. Ten thousand more high school seniors have applied for next year’s entering class than have ever applied before. And we reached Top 5 in the U.S. News public research university rankings!

Whenever I felt weighted down during COVID, I was lifted up when I intentionally experienced joy and when I shared it with others. Sharing joy encouraged me, from tweeting a picture of our new grandson, Calvin to joining others on the lawn of the University Auditorium for hot chocolate, cookies and the lighting of the “Holiday Gator” sculpture earlier this month.

I certainly know that there are times when it seems like there is no room for joy, for example, when we lose a loved one, as some of you and I have experienced.

One of my dearest friends from college, Jerry Pfaff and his wife Susan, visited my wife, Linda, and me early this summer. They stayed with us here on campus in The Dasburg House. Jerry was so talented as a musician and public speaker and teacher.

This summer, we lost Jerry to COVID, and I’m saddened to even talk about that loss, but when I think about how Jerry and Susan invested their lives for 40 years ministering to some of the most needy people on our planet, I am encouraged and filled with joy at the difference Jerry made through his life. Jerry is one of the best examples I know of someone who lived a life of purposeful joy, joy that he shared with others and particularly with me.

Graduates, in the past 21 months, we have all experienced incredible highs and incredible lows. We’ve laughed, we’ve cried. Today, we celebrate you, your resilience, your accomplishments. I am so proud of you, and I know you will go on to great things. Throughout your lives, please remember to let joy, intentional and purposeful joy, fill your life, and please share your joy with others.

I conclude by expressing my personal affection for each of you with an old Irish blessing.

May the sun shine gently on your face.
May the rain fall soft upon your fields.
May the wind be at your back.
May the road rise to meet you.
And may the Lord hold you in the hollow of his hand.
Until we meet again.

Best wishes, congratulations and Go Gators!

UF News December 20, 2021