SALT LAKE CITY — The Rev. France Davis, longtime pastor of Salt Lake's Calvary Baptist Church, challenged graduates of the University of Utah Thursday to "pull down walls that polarize us and build with bricks of unity so we can be one."
Rev. Davis, keynote speaker during the U.'s 150th general commencement, a U. alumnus, educator and community leader, said the class of 2019 must "find a way to do something nobody, absolutely nobody, has been able to do yet. Find a way to bring us together. Behold how good and pleasant it is for us to dwell together in unity."
Graduates responded with a standing ovation and thundering applause, particularly for his last piece of advice, which he attributed to his parents: “Be what you is and not what you ain’t 'cause if you ain’t what you is, then you is what you ain’t.”
The advice resonated with Madison Mitchell of Draper, who was graduating with a bachelor's degree in accounting and is already enrolled in a master's accounting program with a year to go.
"I thought it was really inspirational. His quote at the end was my favorite. 'Be who you is, not what you ain't,'" she said.
Fellow graduate Jordan Hensley of North Ogden, who earned a bachelor's degree in computer science, is already in the workforce after finishing his studies in December. "It feels like I've been out of school for a while."
Hensley said Davis' address "emphasized unity, which I feel we need right now."
Mitchell and Hensley were among 8,465 graduates, the youngest 18 and the eldest 72 years old.
In all, the U. awarded 9,126 degrees (some graduates received more than one degree), which included 5,710 bachelor’s degrees, 2,391 master’s degrees, 727 doctoral degrees, 87 law degrees, 121 medical degrees, 63 pharmacy degrees and 27 degrees in dental surgery.
U. President Ruth V. Watkins singled out four graduates, including former Navy medic Craig Hanson who next fall will enter U.’s School of Medicine after earning a pre-medical degree. He was one of 325 veterans to earn degrees from the U. this year, Watkins said.
She also lifted up Hollie Morales, who was left to care for four children on her own after her husband died of brain cancer. Next, she will study for a doctorate in oncological science at the U. Her first step toward that goal was earning her bachelor's degree in biology, which she will receive Friday.
“Each of you has your own extraordinary story of success," Watkins told the graduates.
"I wish we could highlight every one of you, the challenges you encountered and overcame. The untapped strengths you found as you pursued your degree, what you learned about your field of study and about the world and about yourself during your time at the U.,” Watkins said.
Student speaker T. Alisa Cloward, who earned a bachelor's degree in business, came to the United States from Japan at age 17 from with just $500 in her shoe.
"No, not in my pocket, in my shoe," she emphasized.
She came with the dream of being the first in her family, who include her parents and 11 siblings, to graduate college and become a Disney princess. One of those ambitions has been met, she said.
She earned a GED, passed the ACT, and then enrolled in college and "bawled every Monday and Wednesday after Math 1010."
It was just one of her struggles. She walked to school an hour each way, held down two full-time jobs and attended school full time.
"I ran out of fingernails to chew," she said.
Worse, because she was thousands of miles from home and the first in her family to attempt college, "I had no one to turn to."
She persevered through hard work and stubborn will to succeed, she said. Cloward earned a degree in business administration and she will soon start a job with Microsoft in Washington state.
Cloward said she realizes now that she wasn't alone as she pursued her degree. Classmates kept her sane and friends kept her humble, she said.
Students and faculty she didn't know had a role in turning the U. into a "beautiful, exquisite community."
"That means the world to me to be able to call this home," she said.
While graduation was an occasion of triumph and celebration for many, it was clearly a painful day for the parents of student athlete Lauren McCluskey, who was slain on the university campus on Oct. 22 by Melvin Rowland, a man she dated briefly. Rowland was a convicted sex offender who had lied to McCluskey about his age and background.
Her mother, Jill McCluskey, tweeted that four years ago, her daughter had graduated with honors from high school.
"Today she was supposed to graduate with honors from @UUtah. She will watching from heaven as her friends go through the ceremony," she wrote.
Student athletes wore "Lauren pins" — a silver winged track shoe with Lauren's name — at commencement to honor their friend and classmate.