SALT LAKE CITY — During Thursday's University of Utah commencement ceremony, thousands of students, parents and school faculty stood and booed keynote speaker, alumnus and Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
He had asked them to, going so far as to give tips for effective heckling and suggesting a few names – Mendenhall, Kaepernick, etc. – to imagine in his place for a more emotional delivery.
"All jokes aside, that really happened," he said after the clamor subsided, "except times it by about 10. Imagine 80,000 people tearing you apart."
He said the heartbreak of the experience — the real one — was that it occurred during a home football game, with the taunts coming from the very fans he was trying so hard to impress.
After being drafted into the National Football League, Smith said he became his own worst enemy worrying constantly about the approval of others.
"I felt like I had to be perfect to justify my draft status," Smith said. "I felt like I couldn't make the smallest of mistakes."
Smith, who was also awarded an honory doctor of humane letters degree on Thursday, encouraged graduates to "embrace the challenge of your own imperfection." In the real world, he said, you cannot control the boos and applause but you can control your reaction and turn weaknesses into strengths.
"At some point you’re going to find yourself on the bench and you’re going to have two choices," he said. "One, you can sit and sulk and feel sorry for yourself or you can accept what you cannot control and you can refocus your energy preparing for the next opportunity life brings you."
The University of Utah's class of 2014 included 7,947 graduates from 76 countries, all 50 states and ranging in age from 15 to 71 years old. The university awarded 8,398 degrees, including 5,417 bachelor's degrees, 2,045 master's degrees and 673 doctorates.
The most popular degree fields were psychology, communication, human development and family studies, economics, nursing, exercise and sports science, accounting, biology, sociology and mechanical engineering, according to school officials.
During his remarks, University of Utah President David Pershing told graduates that they had learned to ask big questions, to collaborate and to engage in their communities in meaningful ways. But he added that it is important to recognize that some of the greatest learning in life stems from a person's failures, which can open new paths to success.
He said that when he was young, he had the goal of being a graduate school dean, but was passed over by an search committee for being "too techie." It was almost enough to discourage him from seeking future administrative roles, he said, but he ultimately decided to learn from the experience.
"My message to you tonight is simple," Pershing said. "Don't be afraid of failure. The key is to learn from your failures."
Janine Henry, a strategic communications major who gave the ceremony's student address, spoke to her peers about the challenges, large and small, they had all overcome in pursuit of their education.
She told the story of learning that her fiancé Kat was diagnosed with bone cancer, which made her question whether her educational dreams were out of reach. But she concluded by saying that she had reached the commencement ceremony podium and Kat was out in the crowd watching.
"We have fought and lost and fought harder and lost harder but we’re here," Henry said. "While you might not be standing here today exactly as you thought you would, you’re standing here today exactly as you know you should."
Among the graduates was Jamal Abdinor, a Gates Millennium fellow, who completed a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.
"It feels surreal right now," he said on Thursday. "It hasn't hit me yet."
Abdinor, who was born in Somalia and moved to Utah when he was 3 years old, decided to enroll at the University of Utah after participating in a high school internship program with the university's chemical engineering program.
"I just wanted to continue with what I was doing and I felt the U. would be the best place for that," he said.
This fall, Abdinor will begin working toward a master's degree in chemical engineering at Columbia University.
He is also one of the owners of JC Medical, a medical device company launched during his time at the University of Utah, which producers the LIYEN — Last Inhaler You'll Ever Need — an innovative inhaler that more efficiently delivers medication.
"We hope to continue with the company and further develop it," he said.
Alyssa Wood, a communication major from Payson, said she hoped to visit Spain during the summer before returning to the U. in the fall for law school.
"I'm going to take a break and enjoy my social life and sweet time before law school," she said.
Wood said she enjoyed the people she had met and the classes she was able to take during her undergraduate studies. She said she was excited to "stay red" and re-enroll at the university for the next phase of her education.
"I stayed because I've been really impressed with the U of U Law School and how supportive they are," she said.
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