2022 UVU Commencement: President Astrid S. Tuminez Remarks

Remarks delivered by Utah Valley University President Astrid S. Tuminez as part of UVU's 2022 commencement ceremony.


Good evening, graduates and congratulations! What a glorious occasion this is for you, your family, and UVU. Thank you for believing in yourself and persevering. And thank you for all the hard work that has brought you to tonight’s graduation.

In 2021, the most powerful book I read was Richard Powers’ "The Overstory," a novel about people and trees, but mostly trees. Tonight, I’d like to share three thoughts inspired by this novel.

Did you know? "The Overstory" taught me new things about trees. Did you know that 4 billion of the mighty American Chestnut, which used to fill the forests of the eastern United States, were decimated in a matter of decades by a blight fungus? Did you know that trees are social beings that communicate underground and above ground? Did you know that some can release chemicals into the air to summon an army of wasps to protect them from invading insects? Did you know that trees can filter poison from the ground, and that we humans share one quarter of our DNA with trees?

Richard Powers said that he read more than 120 books on trees while doing research for his novel. That’s why he could write about trees with such beauty, accuracy, and devotion.

As you leave UVU, I hope you will always remember the phrase “Did you know?” It will remind you to be curious, ask questions, and pay attention to the things that are important. Pay attention — to trees, loved ones, a new morning, the work in front of you. As the great poet Mary Oliver said, “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” Your ability to choose what is worthy of your time, energy, and effort in your work and personal lives will very much depend on what you are paying attention to, what you are observing, and what you are asking questions about.

In "The Overstory," one of the main characters is Olivia Vandergriff, a privileged young woman away at college. One night, high on drugs and still wet from a shower, she gets electrocuted and momentarily dies. She sees some mysterious beings of light and, in a mystical way, looks to them for direction. She ditches college, drives west, and finds her life’s purpose with a group trying to save old growth redwood forests from a logging company. She ends up living for a year on top of one of the oldest, biggest redwood trees called Mimas, trying to save it from being cut down.

Olivia’s character is based in part on Julia Butterfly Hill, a real person. In the late 1990s, Julia lived for 738 days in the canopy of a 1,000-year old redwood tree named Luna. She writes, "When I entered the majestic cathedral of the redwood forest for the first time, my spirit knew it had found what it was searching for. I dropped to my knees and began to cry because I was so overwhelmed by the wisdom, energy and spirituality housed in this holiest of temples." Before she found purpose as a protector of forests, at age 22 Julia was in an accident in which a drunk driver hit the car she was driving, causing the steering wheel to penetrate her skull. It took many months of intensive therapy before she could talk and walk again. The accident focused her life.

The stories of Olivia and Julia remind me how important it is to find purpose in life.  For some, purpose comes full blown. For others, it comes piece by piece. And it may also come as a result of crisis. As graduates, make the effort to define your “why.” What kind of work makes you feel alive and why? How can you better serve others and improve your relationships? What great things would you attempt if you could get rid of fear? Don’t wait to have a steering wheel in your head to realize how short and precious life is. Be open to your own revelations and epiphanies. You will surely make mistakes, but remember that mistakes are part of the journey. We are formed more by our failures than our successes. As long as we are learning, the effort and the journey are worth it.

Finally, what is time for trees? Trees have been around for 360 million years. We humans have been around only 300,000 years. In "The Overstory," the author proposes a thought experiment: “Say the planet is born at midnight and it runs for one day. First there is nothing. . . . Life doesn’t show up until three or four a.m. . The day is two-thirds done when animals and plants part ways. . . . Dusk falls before compound life takes hold. . . . By eleven, dinosaurs have shot their bolt, leaving the mammals and birds in charge for an hour. Somewhere in that last sixty minutes. . . , life grows aware. . . . Anatomically modern man shows up four seconds before midnight. . . . By midnight, most of the globe is converted to row crops for the care and feeding of one species. And that’s when the tree of life becomes something else again. That’s when the giant trunk starts to teeter.” ("The Overstory," p. 475)

To teeter means to move or sway unsteadily. As the Class of 2022, you have just been through a pandemic and an election crisis in the US. Today, you are seeing a brutal war unfold in Ukraine. You have read about or experienced crises from drought to wildfires, storms and floods. There seems so much to fear and worry about. This is only one of many moments where you may feel like the trunk of life is teetering, whether that’s in your personal life, this country, or the whole earth.

In a world that is teetering, these ancient creatures called trees, who have been witness to many things, remind us that we can stay rooted, stand still, and breathe. As you leave UVU, remember that breathing and stillness are a superpower. Every day, practice breathing and coming home to yourself and your body. When you are overcome by strong and difficult emotions, breathe deeply and slowly. Come back to the present moment. Let go of the past and don’t worry too much about the future. Be home, here and now. If you do this, your ability to work with life as it is and to find hope, joy, and peace, no matter your trials, will be enlarged.

Graduates, remember to be curious and observe. Define your purpose — don’t be afraid to be great. And remember to breathe. I am so proud of all of you. Godspeed.

Go, Wolverines!