Eboo Patel openly admits that the first time he hosted a potluck, he had no lofty ideals in mind.

“I was just very lonely and too poor to put on a dinner party. Also, I only cooked one dish, masala potatoes. I mean, how many nights can you eat masala potatoes alone?” he said.

So he invited six friends and they had an amazing time. As they left, they told Patel they were coming back in a week and they were bringing friends.

“It was a good reminder. A potluck is not a dinner party. It’s more rock ’n’ roll jam session or jazz improvisation than classical orchestral performance,” said Patel, founder of Interfaith America and the University of Utah’s keynote commencement speaker Thursday evening.

A potluck “is street-level self-governance. And like everything else about self-governance, potlucks don’t rise from the ground or fall from the sky. Someone steps up to host them. Everything always starts with a leader. Today I am inviting you to be that person,” Patel told the class of 2024.

Patel asked the graduating class to consider the significance of their diplomas and this moment.

“It means that you know that the world is far more complicated than the day you entered. It means that you have spent the last several years growing your knowledge base and cultivating your skill set and you are therefore far more capable than you once thought. It means that at a time when our diverse democracy seems hopelessly divided, you can be counted on to build the bridges of cooperation,” he said.

There are many ways to lead in a diverse democracy, Patel said.

“I hope you will engage in all of them. Vote, canvas, make speeches, start an organization, join a club, run for office, protest peacefully, but not right now,” a passing reference to three pro-Palestinian protests on the university’s campus this week, one that had to be broken up by police.

Another way to lead is to potluck, he said.

“Host potlucks to save diverse democracy. ... A potluck is the ultimate democratic forum. No mayor, governor or general can command people to potluck. President Taylor (Randall), you are a great guy. You cannot command people to potluck. It is an event of the people, by the people, for the people,” said Patel, who is a Rhodes Scholar, author of five books, a University of Utah Impact Scholar and a Deseret News contributing writer.

Extra police were on hand for commencement, but a small protest outside the arena and a short-lived disturbance inside the Huntsman Center had a negligible impact on the festivities.

A small group of students got up and left while President Taylor Randall addressed the audience. Some people shouted, “Palestine.”

Randall responded, “We certainly hear you and you have a right to express your viewpoints. You do not, however, have the right to disrupt the celebration.” His comment was met with warm applause and loud cheers.

He continued, “We’ll give you a moment. But if you continue to protest, we’d ask you to leave or you will be removed.”

The demonstrations at the University of Utah were among dozens across the country with students and community members demanding that their universities divest from companies linked to Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, which started when Hamas launched a surprise attack on Israel from Gaza on Oct. 7. Thousand of Israelis and Palestinians have been killed in the conflict.

At least 21 people have been arrested in connection with Monday’s protest at the University of Utah after demonstrators refused to comply with police commands to disperse and take down their encampment. Most of the people arrested were not affiliated with the university, a spokesperson said.

“Clearly in this moment of our university, we see that universities are microcosms of the world around us. They’re special places. They really are, the places where each of us are able to bring our passions and try to figure out if we can work some logic through our anger,” Randall said.

“It’s a place where we can sit down and try and dialogue. But it certainly requires every one of us to participate in creating a platform so that we can actually have those dialogues. I got to tell you that I never thought it would be a potluck but I’m going to host one this weekend,” he said.

Randall also remarked on the resilience of the class of 2024, whose ”lives have been impacted by a historic pandemic at two important gentle junctures: the end of high school, so for many of you, this may be your first graduation and the beginning of college.”

Despite those challenges, they remained optimistic about their future, he said.

“I know this because I’ve seen it with my own eyes and watched your resilience as you have succeeded and you are here,” Randall said.

“This makes me incredibly optimistic, optimistic for our collective future because I know that you will work to use your spirit of resilience to make this world a better place for all of us.”

Jack O’Leary, Associated Students of the University Of Utah student body president, saluted his fellow graduates.

“Class of 2024, we’re here! For many of us who did not get a regular high school graduation, today we can say, ‘We did it. We made it.’ I am so proud of each and every one of you, thankful to have embarked on this journey with you and excited to see how you will go and change the world,” O’Leary said.

This was the university’s 155th general commencement. In total, 8,652 graduates were awarded 9,266 degrees — some graduates earned more than one degree. The youngest graduate earned an undergraduate degree at age 16. The oldest person who received a graduate degree was 69 years old.

Humanitarian Pamela J. Atkinson, philanthropist Catherine Roper Meldrum and renowned computer science researcher Steven G. Parker were awarded honorary doctorate degrees from the university. Parker was unable to attend, so his brother, Michael Parker, accepted it on his behalf.

Two professors were honored with the Rosenblatt Prize for Excellence, the most prestigious honor the university bestows on its faculty, which comes with a $50,000 cash award. This year, two professors were awarded the prize: Cynthia Berg, distinguished professor of psychology, and Jay Barney, presidential professor of strategic management and Pierre Lassonde Chair of Social Entrepreneurship.