"Live every day with a clear purpose," McDonald told the crowd of about 7,200 students, faculty and others. "Don't wait for that one big decision. Don't wait for that one big opportunity. Start right now."
Some graduates, including Mylinda Barrick, didn't need to be reminded. During the ceremony, Barrick was FaceTiming her mother from her seat on the stadium floor. Her mom was in St. George, unable to attend the event because she is undergoing chemotherapy treatments for breast cancer, said Barrick. She motioned "I love you" to her mom as school officials took turns at the microphone.
"I'm so proud to have a master's in social work, to be doing what I love and to honor my mom," said Barrick, who hopes to do counseling in a medical setting.
Student speaker May Bartlett, who earned a bachelor's in philosophy, urged students to avoid feeling lost among vast choices by springing for any opportunity that pops up.
"If I could wish anything for us at this pivotal time in our lives," Bartlett said, "it's that we stay open" to new possibilities.
Bartlett also chided fellow students from the podium.
"Wait. None of you did this in four years, did you?" she said, alluding to the U.'s four-year graduation rate, which is lower than at many of the nation's state universities.
But this year's slight uptick in U. graduates is a testament to a "concerted effort" by the U. to raise graduation rates, Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Ruth Watkins said in a prepared statement in advance of the Thursday event.
The ceremony wasn't the only appearance at the U. on Thursday for McDonald, who became the V.A.'s top official in July, after reports of patients dying while they waited for appointments and of coverups at an Arizona V.A. center led his predecessor Eric Shinseki to resign.
A former president and CEO of Procter & Gamble, McDonald told reporters at an on-campus news conference earlier in the day that his department was addressing those issues with better support for nationwide V.A. staff, an updated record-keeping system, longer clinic hours and more patient exam rooms.
He pointed to Salt Lake City's V.A. center as an example. The hub serving Utah, parts of Idaho and Nevada, McDonald said, has doubled the size of its primary-care clinic in recent months.
McDonald earned an MBA from the University of Utah in 1978 after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
He said Utah's successful housing initiative for homeless veterans made him proud to be a graduate of the state's flagship school.