Ben Nemtin Brings Life to Commencement


Courtesy University of Utah

Courtesy University of Utah

By Christina Giardinelli

With this year’s commencement ceremony quickly approaching, posters bearing the question “What’s on your bucket list?” have been placed across the University of Utah’s campus. The idea behind this theme takes root in “The Buried Life” movement, an initiative-turned MTV series founded by four college students, one of whom is this year’s commencement speaker, Ben Nemtin.

Nemtin, who will speak on Thursday, May 3, is The New York Times bestselling author of “What Do You Want To Do Before You Die?”

Jonnie Penn, Dave Lingwood, Duncan Penn and Nemtin were sitting in their parent’s garage wondering how to make an impact and give meaning to life when they came up with the idea for the project.

“We had all of these things we wanted to do and we weren’t doing them,” Nemtin said in a 2015 TEDx talk.

The group decided to draft a bucket list of 100 items.

The namesake of the project is a 19th century poem by Matthew Arnold. The four identified with the plight Arnold discussed in the poem. They felt their hopes and dreams were buried by school and work. The group took a road trip in a borrowed RV, working through their bucket list while helping others do the same.

What started off as a crazy idea ended up reaching a large number of people. “The Buried Life” movement was featured on major news outlets such as CNN, FOX, ABC, CBS and NBC News. Throughout the journey, the group was able to cross off items such as “playing basketball with President [Barack] Obama.”

For every item crossed of the bucket list, the four pledged to help another person cross an item off of their own list. From buying a truck for a small business owner to helping a young man search for a kidney donor, the quest for meaning quickly became a daily reality for the four college students.

Students and attendees of this year’s commencement ceremony at the U will have the opportunity to hear about this movement.

In an email, Nemtin said he is “thrilled to have this opportunity.” He stated he feels his message applies to many college students looking for meaning.

“We all need reminders of what is truly important or those things get buried and lost,” Nemtin wrote.

He hopes to share with graduates “some of the top things I wish I knew when I was their age.” Among those things are “impossible is possible, failure is a good thing, trust your gut and follow your passion, help others along the way, you will go through hard times, and when you do, you need to talk about it. Don’t keep it inside.”

Barbara Smith, a spokesperson for the U’s president’s office, believes the choice to have Nemtin deliver the address is a result of a shift in the way the commencement ceremony is managed. The shift, according to Smith, took place shortly after former U President David Pershing took office.

“[Pershing] wanted to make [the commencement ceremony] what it truly is, which is a celebration of the students,” Smith said in a phone interview. “It’s the capstone of their experience here at the University of Utah, and he wanted the ceremony to reflect that and to have the celebration fall along the highlights of their experience as opposed to something that they may or may not feel obligated to go to.”

Smith recounted changes in the way the ceremony is run, such as a video projection inside the commencement hall showing a real time feed of graduating students lining up outside. Other changes include the addition of an Instagram picture contest, videos documenting the achievements of honorary degree recipients and the change from a morning commencement ceremony to an evening ceremony.

“It has become a really fun event,” Smith said. “It lacked life before.”

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