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At Graduate Commencement Ceremonies, Grads Urged to Look Back With Gratitude and Ahead With Fortitude

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Heather Hein

Senior Editor

“Things are not as they should be, but you are exactly where you need to be” was the message to the graduates who received master's and doctorate degrees on June 14.

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Thousands of well-wishers were on hand at Magness Arena on Friday to celebrate the approximately 1,300 graduates who received their master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Denver.

Chancellor Jeremy Haefner opened both the “crimson” and “gold” ceremonies by recognizing the challenges—and perhaps the anxieties and disappointments—that this year’s graduates have faced on their academic journey.

Yet, he told them, “You stayed focused, learned, grew and persevered. Here you are today, soon-to-be college graduates with advanced degrees surrounded by people and a community who knows the hard work and dedication it took to earn your degrees.”

He encouraged the graduates to think about all those who helped them along the way, including family, friends, faculty and mentors. “So many people are here today to share in your joy and accomplishment—not just for the degree you earned but for every step that brought you to this moment,” he said, before inviting them to rise and cheer their supporters in the audience.

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Then, commencement speaker Maureen Hinman (pictured, with Chancellor Haefner)—a Korbel School of International Relations alumna and leading policy expert on energy, the environment and the economy—took the podium.  

“Congratulations, graduates. Congrats. The world is a mess,” she began.

Using a mix of humor, stories about her own personal challenges and practical advice, Hinman outlined the grim realities facing society today before explaining that, although things may not be as they should be or how we want them to be, the graduates could rest assured that they are exactly where they need to be and, in fact, “have self-selected to be the right people at the right time” to solve the challenges before them.

A former top U.S. trade negotiator and co-founder of Silverado Policy Accelerator in Washington, D.C., Hinman then explained that effective negotiating is “really about shared problem solving” and, since there is no shortage of problems for the graduates to solve, she wanted to share her top five rules for negotiation.    

Rule #1: Be hard on issues and soft on people. We live in a time, Hinman said, when people are more likely to “cancel” or call out people rather than do the hard work of figuring out why misalignments in belief occur. But, in effective negotiating, all stakeholders are important, and you must understand their interests to come up with workable solutions. You can only do this by separating people from their positions—so, even if the deal falls through, there are no hard feelings, and you leave the door open for future progress.     

Rule #2: Assumptions are the mother of all “eff ups.” Never assume that what people say and what you hear are the same thing, Hinman said. She gave an example of a negotiation when a Chinese counterpart kept talking about “win-win” proposals—which she eventually came to understand meant that the Chinese would win twice, not that China and the U.S. would both win. The lesson, she said, was “always confirm.”   

Rule #3: Never concede when you can just work harder. It’s important to lean into the hard stuff, Hinman said, because that’s where the most growth occurs—but that means learning how to sit with discomfort and embrace uncertainty. She relayed her experience of landing her dream job as a trade negotiator at the same time she was starting her family. It was difficult and uncomfortable, she said, but “I would have shortchanged myself, my family and my profession if I had conceded to comfort rather than just working a little harder”—and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding chapters of her life.

Rule #4: Build the bench. Being an effective negotiator, Hinman said, means fostering the careers of others. Just a generation ago, there were very few women in trade policy—but those women decided that, once they reached the top of their profession, the important thing to do was “to reach down and pull the next lady up onto her shoulders.” She urged the graduates to be grateful for those who came before, to not judge others’ efforts in the past by present-day standards, and to remember that everyone does the best they can with what they have at the time.

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Rule #5: Be a good sport and be silly. Hinman left the grads the same way she began—with humor.  No matter how serious your career is, she said, it’s important that the work be both hard and fun. She then told the story of a practical joke she played on a Canadian colleague during a goods negotiation. Canada had proposed a project containing nickel that U.S. environmental officials had flagged for further review, which her counterpart rebuffed, saying, “Surely, my American colleagues are not insinuating that the nickels in my pocket are toxic.” Hinman did a quick search and found out that Canadian nickels do not, in fact, contain any nickel, though American nickels do. She conceded his point by getting $50 worth of American nickels and covering the Canadian’s desk during a break. “They were everywhere—in his earpiece, his briefcase, his coat pockets, between papers. He returned to his seat, looking confused, assessed what was going on and then burst out laughing.” So, Hinman concluded, “My hope for you is that every now and again you’ll have a nickel or two—or 1,000—to spare for a colleague with whom you disagree.”

Chancellor Haefner closed commencement by reminding the graduates that they each have a unique set of perspectives, skills and gifts to contribute. “Each of you has endless depths of value to bring to all the lives you touch, and I cannot wait to see where you will go.”