On 'mountaintop day,' Tubbs tells grads to learn to embrace 'valley experiences'

graduates celebrate during commencement

The University of Arizona conferred about 8,000 degrees during its 159th Commencement on Friday.

Chris Richards/University Communications

Friday may have been a "mountaintop day" for the University of Arizona class of 2023, Michael Tubbs said during the university's 159th Commencement.

But the real work in graduates' upcoming careers will be remembering and learning from their "valley experiences," Tubbs said in his speech to graduates and guests at Arizona Stadium.

Michael Tubbs

"It's easy to answer your question, 'What are you willing to win for,'" Tubbs said. "But true leadership and true purpose goes to the answer of this question: What are you willing to lose for?"

Chris Richards/University Communications

Tubbs became the youngest mayor of a major U.S. city at 26 years old when he was elected to office in Stockton, California, in 2016. His election also made him the city's first African American mayor.

He is now special adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom for economic mobility and opportunity. Tubbs is also the founder of the organizations Mayors for a Guaranteed Income, End Poverty in California and Tubbs Ventures, an investment firm.

Tubbs, a first-generation college graduate, urged graduates to recognize the sacrifices others made so they could earn their degrees – and that graduates' degrees do not make them better than people without degrees.

"But they do mean that we are better equipped to serve, to solve complex challenges and to become our best selves," he said, adding that graduates are earning their degrees at a time when the country and world are facing a host of challenges.

As graduates enter their careers, they will not always have "mountaintop days" like graduation day, Tubbs said. But days like these would not be as significant without periods of struggle – or "valley experiences" – he said.

Tubbs knows this firsthand.

He told graduates about a day 12 years ago, when he was an intern in the White House of former President Barack Obama, that his mother called with the tragic news that his cousin had been murdered at a house party. He turned the pain from that moment into purpose, he said, later running for Stockton City Council.

Tubbs also shared how he spent a summer preparing and applying for the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship but was not selected to receive it. He said he used the "rejection as a redirection" to recalibrate, reprioritize and replan,

When Tubbs sought reelection as Stockton mayor in 2020 – after leading the city through a 40% drop in homicides between 2018 and 2019 and implementing the country's first university basic income program – he lost. But, he said, there was a lesson in the loss.

"It's easy to answer your question, 'What are you willing to win for?'" he said. "But true leadership and true purpose goes to the answer of this question: What are you willing to lose for?"

"And in that answer, I gained such clarity," Tubbs added.

University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins

"This is a very special place, and though you are graduating tonight, I hope you know you will always be part of the Wildcat family," University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins told graduates.

Chris Richards/University Communications

About 4,500 students and 33,000 guests attended the Commencement ceremony, where university President Robert C. Robbins conferred about 8,000 degrees.

Before Tubbs' address, attendees heard remarks from Robbins, as well as Vice President of Enrollment Management and Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Kasey Urquidez, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and Provost Liesl Folks, college deans, student-body leaders and others.

Jessica Retis, director of the School of Journalism, gave the ceremony's greeting in Spanish. Eleni Cachora, the 2023-24 Miss Tohono O'odham Nation, read the university's land acknowledgement, first in O'odham and then in English.

In his remarks, Robbins recognized the challenging year the university has had, particularly the tragic death of Thomas Meixner, professor and head of the Department of Hydrology and Atmospheric Sciences, in October. Robbins thanked members of the university community for supporting each other with "compassion and empathy."

"One of the clearest things for me this year is how much everyone here loves the University of Arizona," Robbins said. "This is a very special place, and though you are graduating tonight, I hope you know you will always be part of the Wildcat family."

In his closing remarks, Tubbs told graduates of the Freedom Ride he took in 2011 to mark the original Freedom Rides in 1961, when civil rights activists took bus trips through the South to protest segregated bus terminals. Tubbs took a similar ride, with several of the original Freedom Riders, 50 years later.

During the trip, one man told the story of getting arrested during a demonstration on Aug. 4, 1961 – the same day Obama was born. Little did the man know that his choices that day in 1961, he told Tubbs, would help lead to changes that allowed Obama to become the first Black president.

The man then asked Tubbs: "What are you prepared to do today so that 50 years from now, the world looks a little better?"

Tubbs put that question to the class of 2023.

"That's the centerpiece of this magnificent celebration," he said.

Student award winners, honorary degrees

During Friday's ceremony, seven graduating seniors were recognized for their outstanding achievements and contributions. The Provost Award went to Ryan Ellsworth (communication); the Robie Gold Medals went to Jessica Plaza Rodríguez (family studies and human development, and Spanish) and Mikah Wesley Rosanova (law); the Robert Logan Nugent Awards went to Kristijan Barnjak (information science and technology and linguistics) and Hillary Schiff (biochemistry and French); and the Merrill P. Freeman Medals went to Vanessa Addison (biochemistry) and Elizabeth Grace Hala'ufia (neuroscience and cognitive science).

The following six honorary degrees also were awarded:

  • Charles "Chuck" Huckelberry, former Pima County administrator whose five decades in public service had deep impact across Southern Arizona. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences)
  • Jon Jessen, a world leader in sustainable pest control and farming practices and longtime supporter of the University of Arizona. (Doctor of Science from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences)
  • Linda McCartney, photographer, musician and animal-rights activist who attended UArizona in the early 1960s. (Posthumous Doctor of Fine Arts from the College of Fine Arts)
  • Robert H. Mundheim, an internationally renowned attorney and a professor of corporate law and finance in the James E. Rogers College of Law. (Doctor of Laws from the James E. Rogers College of Law)
  • James C. Wyant, an optical sciences industry pioneer who led the College of Optical Sciences as founding dean. (Doctor of Science from the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences)
  • Amy Zuckerman, a community advocate, photographer and supporter of rural and public health whose parents are namesakes of the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health. (Doctor of Humane Letters from the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health)

A video of the ceremony is available to watch on YouTube.