Commencement Guest Speakers to Share Stories of Success
By Mark Kramer
International best-selling author, entrepreneur and award-winning film producer Chris Gardner and Harris County Commissioner Rodney Ellis will share their stories of success with graduates during the University of Houston-Downtown’s 66th annual Commencement ceremonies on May 18 at Minute Maid Park.
Gardner will serve as the guest speaker at the 10 a.m. ceremony for students receiving their degrees from the Marilyn Davies College of Business and College of Public Service. Ellis is the highlighted speaker for the 4 p.m. commencement for students in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Sciences and Technology, and University College. In addition, Safia Kuzu serve as the student speaker for the morning ceremony, while student Nicolas Flores will address fellow graduates at the late afternoon commencement.
Spotlighting our guest speakers
Gardner’s autobiography, “The Pursuit of Happyness” became a New York Times No. 1 Best Seller, which has been translated into more than 40 languages, including six dialects of Chinese and is currently being translated into Arabic. He was also the inspiration for the critically acclaimed film, “The Pursuit of Happyness,” where actor Will Smith received the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award nominations for his performance.
Currently, Gardner is working on the book, “HappYness 2.0: The Blueprint,” which is scheduled for release this year. Recently, Gardner won a Peabody Award for producing “And Still I Rise,” a documentary about the life of his dear friend and mentor, the late Dr. Maya Angelou.
Gardner is also serving his country, as he re-enlisted in the United States Navy. Last year, he received the Lone Star Sailor Award from the United States Navy Memorial Foundation. Previous recipients include Arnold Palmer, Senator and Astronaut John Glenn and President John F. Kennedy.
Ellis is a native Houstonian, born and raised in the Sunnyside neighborhood. The proud son of a yardman and a maid, he attended Texas public schools from grade school through law school. He holds a bachelor's degree from Texas Southern University, a master's degree from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, and a law degree from The University of Texas School of Law.
Ellis began his career as a public servant working as Chief of Staff for the late Congressman Mickey Leland and served three terms on the Houston City Council before joining the Texas Senate, where he served for more than 25 years before being elected to his current position as Harris County Precinct One Commissioner in 2016. As commissioner, Ellis has worked to develop new economic growth policies and implementing mobility plans that connects families to safe, affordable transportation options. Following Hurricane Harvey, Ellis successfully advocated for equitable future investments in flood control infrastructure and disaster recovery.
An advocate for criminal justice reform, Ellis chaired the Board of Directors for the Innocence Project for 14 years and now serves as a member of the Founders’ Circle for the national group. He currently sits on the advisory board of the Quattrone Center for the Fair Administration of Justice at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and serves on the LBJ Foundation Board of Trustees. In 2018, he was elected to serve as president of the National Association of Black County Officials. He is also a member of the advisory council for Own Our Vote, which works to ensure that every eligible high school senior is registered to vote in Texas.
Student Speakers: Safia Kuzu and Nicolas Flores
Kuzu will lead the student message during the morning ceremony. She aspires to use her Bachelors Degree in Social Work to advocate for those in need. “I believe that everyone has a unique story that encompasses resilience and strength. Engaging with people to learn about who they are, where they come from, and what’s their story…that inspires me,” she said.
During her time at UHD, Kuzu was an active Gator with membership in the Social Work Student Advocacy Network, the Phi Alpha Social Work Student Honor Society, and the Muslim Student Association. She also represented the University as a Social Work Student Ambassador.
“I’m proud to be an alumnus of a unique university that values diversity, inclusivity, and community engagement and service,” she said.
Flores, a first-generation college student who is receiving a Bachelor of Arts in Mathematics, will address his fellow students at the afternoon commencement. He plans to teach high school math and has goals of becoming a professor at the college level.
“I want to show my future students that it’s possible to achieve your dreams if you are persistent and never give up,” he said. “Eventually, I will earn a master’s in mathematics, which will afford me the opportunity to teach at a university like UHD.”
Flores praised his professors for helping to prepare him for the future. “They always pushed me to be the best problem-solver I can be,” he said. “UHD gave me the skills and exposure I need to be a great teacher and how to stay strong and persevere.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.