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U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack urges UMN Crookston graduates to 'find your true purpose'

These graduates represent "America's resilient generation," having persevered during "a unique and historically disruptive time," Vilsack said.

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, right, joins University of Minnesota Regent Doug Huebsch in tossing confetti on the University of Minnesota-Crookston at the conclusion of commencement exercises Saturday, May 7, 2022. Secretary Vilsack was the keynote speaker. Photo by Eric Hylden
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
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CROOKSTON, Minn. – As new graduates of the University of Minnesota Crookston, Kylie Post and Alex Mushitz basked in the happy atmosphere after their commencement ceremony Saturday, May 7, with family members snapping pictures near the stage in the Lysaker Gymnasium.

They said they were inspired by the message that Tom Vilsack, secretary of United States Department Agriculture, delivered as keynote speaker, as well as others who addressed the members of the Class of 2022 and their family and friends in the audience.

Post, from Corcoran, Minnesota, has completed an undergraduate degree in elementary education and Mushitz, from East Grand Forks, has earned his degree in health sciences. Mushitz is interested in a career in the biology field, possibly in conservation or environmental sciences, he said.

The invitation for Vilsack to address the University of Minnesota Crookston’s 55th commencement ceremony arose from a personal connection the ag secretary has with the family of John Hoffman, the university’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

Addressing the audience, Hoffman said his father, Clarence, served as a Republican in the Iowa Legislature for years while Vilsack, a Democrat, was the state’s governor. Hoffman said Vilsack would tell his father that they had different views and there were many things they couldn’t do because of party affiliation.

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“But there’s a lot in the middle we can do, by learning from one another and putting Iowans first,” Hoffman said Vilsack told his father.

About a year and a half ago, Hoffman’s father was diagnosed with COVID and spent two months in the hospital, Hoffman said. “We almost lost him.”

On his return home, there were more than 100 notes and cards waiting for him, Hoffman said, “but the one my father speaks most about is the extended, handwritten note from Tom Vilsack. That speaks to his character.”

Hoffman said of Vilsack: “Our guest speaker exemplifies character, integrity and leadership.”

Nominated by President Joe Biden, Vilsack was confirmed in February 2021 by the U.S. Senate to serve as the nation’s 32nd agriculture secretary. Vilsack also served as agriculture secretary in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2017. He was Iowa’s governor from 1999 to 2007.

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University of Minnesota-Crookston graduates gather Saturday at UMC for commencement exercises in Lysaker Gym. Photo by Eric Hylden
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

‘Find your true passion’

In his address, Vilsack urged the graduates to find their “true passion” in life and, if successful in that quest, “you will have a life of fulfillment and a life of joy,” he said.

He acknowledged the unusual conditions – such as the COVID pandemic in recent years and the war in Ukraine – that characterize these times and have affected students’ lives as they worked to earn college degrees.

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“You have persevered during a unique and historically disruptive time,” Vilsack said, noting that “each of you should be proud and confident in your ability to handle whatever life has in store.”

“I see you as America’s resilient generation,” he said, pointing to the extraordinary resilience of the Ukrainian population as an example of dedication to purpose.

The people of Ukraine are resilient, he said, because “they have one purpose — they want to be a free and self-governing nation.”

Graduates Mushitz and Post said they appreciated Vilsack’s remarks about resiliency.

The pandemic has equipped them and their peers “to expect the unexpected at all times,” Mushitz said. “To prepare for the worst and pray for the best.”

The pandemic has taught him that “we can do a lot of things we thought we couldn’t,” he said.

Opportunities abound

In his talk, Vilsack stressed the vast number and diversity of opportunities available for those interested in working in public service in the agriculture sector.

“This is a shameless plug for the U.S. Department of Agriculture,” he said, as he noted that 7% of the USDA workforce is under age 35 and more than 50% of the workforce is getting ready to retire.

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The agricultural sector will need leaders of all types, he said, including entrepreneurs and “ecopreneurs.”

He also underscored the importance of people working together, despite political differences, to find solutions to today’s challenges.

“We face a time of disruption, but unfortunately we do so as a divided nation,” Vilsack said. He emphasized the need for graduates to work to find common ground and identify creative solutions to problems that plague the nation, such as the production and distribution of food products.

That process does not mean that one surrenders their values, “but with creative thinking and by listening, those values can be honored,” he said. “The more united we are, the more resilient we’ll be.”

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U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack gives the Class of 2022 at University of Minnesota Crookston wisdom during his commencement address Saturday, May 7, 2022, as UMC Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause, left, listens.
Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

Vilsack impressed upon the graduates that, no matter what field they pursue, “there are endless ways to serve your community.”

“You may want to become a community builder,” he said, urging them to “adopt a mentality of service” and declaring that daily acts of service, whether on a small or large scale, contribute to the greater good.

Student perspective

Speaking for the student body, Vinayak Sharma, president of the UMN Crookston Student Association, recalled arriving on campus as a freshman from India, eager to connect with other students.

“The time I have spent (on campus) have been the best years of my life,” said Sharma, who is the first international student body president at the school. “UMC is a temple of wisdom and knowledge.”

He complimented the faculty and staff for helping students navigate the pandemic and thanked family and friends who traveled to attend the commencement ceremony.

“Having you here makes all the difference,” he said. “It makes us feel on top of the world.”

Sharma also encouraged his classmates by quoting President Abraham Lincoln, saying, “The best way to predict your future is to create it.”

About 150 students participated in the commencement ceremony. About 520 students were candidates for Saturday’s graduation, including those who earned their degrees last fall or will earn them later in 2022.

As the ceremony drew to a close, Chancellor Mary Holz-Clause asked graduates to keep in touch with the school.

“Remain focused on your goals, and continue to do great things,” she said. “We know you will.”

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Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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