Dr. James R. Downing challenges record number of grads to pursue their passion, make the world a better place

UMDearborn Winter Commencement 2017Dr. James R. Downing (’77 B.S.), St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital President and CEO, laid out five guiding principles for new University of Michigan-Dearborn graduates and urged them to make the world a better place.

Downing was the keynote speaker for UM-Dearborn’s commencement ceremony Sunday, April 30, where officials conferred more than 1,000 degrees—the largest number in the university’s 58-year history.

“In a few short moments, you will become official graduates of the University of Michigan-Dearborn. You will join one of the most powerful alumni networks in the United States. As a member of this group, you will experience advantages that reflect your intelligence and education and the traditions of this great university,” Downing said.

“With that unique status, however, comes responsibility. I look out upon you, and I see tomorrow’s leaders. You need to accept that responsibility and meet the challenge to make not only your world, but the entire globe a better place for all people.”

Downing encouraged graduates to reflect on five guiding principles he had developed in life: Find your passion and pursue it; dream big; you only need a small safety net; remember who you are; and you don’t accomplish anything on your own.

Downing said he had not always planned on a career in biomedicine. In fact, he had enrolled at UM-Dearborn in the mid-70s as a mechanical engineering student and only decided to take a biology class his second semester to “get it out of the way.”

The first night, he misread the homework assignment and began his reading on page 200 of his biology textbook.

“I started reading and I couldn’t put the book down. I literally read 100 pages of the book that night,” he said. “And I woke up the next morning and I knew that I was going to change my major. I was going to become a molecular biologist. I was going to pursue a career in biomedical research. I had found my passion.”

He added, “Graduates, you need to find your passion in life, both inside and outside of work…You are going to work a long time and you owe it to yourself to find a career that you are deeply passionate about.”

Later, Downing recalled how he had applied to 20 medical schools at a time when the country was focused on training primary care physicians, not researchers. He was rejected by 19 of the 20 schools, but was undeterred in his pursuit.

“If you fail at your first pursuit, just pick yourself up, brush off the disappointment and try again. Nothing can beat perseverance,” he said. “Too many people worry more about failing than they do about success…Ultimately, success requires you to embrace the struggle and to work through and learn from your failures.

“You have just completed an education that will serve you well for the rest of your life. Go out and succeed.”

Earlier in the ceremony, student speaker Victor Jimenez urged graduates to “seize every opportunity to learn and experience” new things.

“We dwell on our pasts. We worry about our future…Instead, we should be finding the will to persist through failure,” he said, “remembering the power of our will and appreciating the beauty in learning.”

Sunday’s ceremony included recognition of five students who were honored as Chancellor’s Medallion Award recipients for their academic record, quality of character, intellect and integrity:

  • Dearborn resident Kevin Landwehr, College of Business
  • Romulus resident Brandon Lee, College of Engineering and Computer Science
  • Dearborn Heights resident Gay E. Johnson, College of Education, Health and Human Services
  • Livonia resident Jamie Jeffries, College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters
  • Westland resident Nic Jones, College of Arts, Sciences, and Letters

Shirley R. Stancato, president and chief executive officer of New Detroit, received the honorary Doctor of Laws degree during the ceremony. This marked just the 11th time the University of Michigan Board of Regents has awarded an honorary degree at a UM-Dearborn commencement ceremony.

“We celebrate your many contributions to Detroit and the State of Michigan, as an engaged citizen, champion of education, and architect of civic engagement opportunities that bridge economic, geographical and racial divides,” U-M Regent Mark Bernstein said, reading from the formal citation. “You inspire students and others with your commitment to create a more inclusive society and eliminate race as an obstacle to progress.”

View photos from UM-Dearborn’s commencement ceremony.

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