Celebrating a historic partnership

Little more than a month after sending more than 6,000 new Carolina graduates into the world to begin careers, Chancellor Carol L. Folt encouraged another class of new graduates to take flight in her commencement address at Universidad San Francisco de Quito’s graduation in Ecuador.

“My job today is not just to congratulate you on your accomplishments, but I am supposed to help you get ready to leave this home to take your next big leap into the unknown,” she told the graduating seniors on June 24.

Folt was the featured speaker at the commencement at Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), a strategic partner of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Considered Ecuador’s top university, USFQ is the first fully funded private liberal arts university in Ecuador and the largest source of scientific, artistic and humanistic research in the country. Together, USFQ and Carolina own and operate the world’s only university laboratory and science center in Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands.

Folt’s address inspired students to set their sights on the challenges and mysteries ahead as their new lives take flight. She reflected on a number of inspiring flights that others have taken, from the Wright Brothers in North Carolina to the founders of USFQ to Charles Darwin’s profound impact on science in the Galápagos.

USFQ was founded by Chancellor Santiago Gangotena, who received his Ph.D. in physics from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1977 and was recognized with a Distinguished Alumnus Award from Carolina in 2009. In 2016, UNC-Chapel Hill named a need-based scholarship in Santiago’s honor, recognizing his historic accomplishment as founder of USFQ.

Nearly 6,000 students, including 4,000 undergraduates, attend USFQ, which offers degrees through ten colleges, and 541 students graduated Saturday.

Ahead of her speech, Folt visited USFQ on Friday and met with Gangotena; USFQ President Carlos Montúfar; Diego Quiroga, dean of research and external affairs; and other USFQ administrators and signed a memorandum of understanding about the two universities’ commitment to continuing their partnership and collaborations.

Protecting a World Heritage Site

At the heart of the USFQ-UNC partnership is the Galápagos Science Center, through which the two universities collaborate to address the challenges facing the Galápagos Islands, the first designated World Heritage site located about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, and other fragile island ecosystems. “The people of Ecuador chose to steward this precious resource for the world for all time,” said Folt, who met with researchers whose work is dedicated to protecting the islands’ unique species and ecosystems.

In 2011, UNC-Chapel Hill and USFQ together constructed the nearly 20,000-foot Galápagos Science Center (GSC) on San Cristóbal Island, a state-of-the-art research center and the only university science facility of its kind in in the Galápagos. The work done there promotes science and education that helps sustain the islands’ ecosystems and enhances the livelihood of people who live there, in the face of growing ecotourism.

The research taking place in the Galápagos is part of a network of Carolina’s global research activity that directly connects human and environmental forces in island and coastal ecosystems worldwide, from North Carolina’s Outer Banks to the complex Pacific archipelagos.

The idea for the Galápagos Science Center emerged from a partnership begun in 2006 between geography professors Steve Walsh at UNC-Chapel Hill and Carolina alumnus Carlos Mena at USFQ. As leaders at the GSC, the two lead a team of global researchers who with the government of Ecuador and the Galapagos National Park, collaborate on projects that increase understanding of the human and natural systems in the islands and support park management.

In 2016, NAFSA: Association of International Educators honored UNC-Chapel Hill with a Senator Paul Simon Spotlight Award for Carolina’s collaboration with USFQ through the Galápagos Science Center.

The center also provides a tremendous opportunity for Carolina students who want to study or conduct research abroad. More than 150 UNC-Chapel Hill students have participated in the Galápagos study abroad program and undergraduate and graduate students from diverse fields have conducted research on the islands.

As part of her trip to Ecuador, Folt visited the Galápagos Science Center and met with Carolina and USFQ researchers there. She also planned to visit a field site for UNC Study Abroad where Carolina scientists are conducting sea turtle research and surveying species diversity in coastal marine environments.

Preparing for change

As part of her graduation speech, Folt spoke of Carolina’s collaborations with USFQ.

“Although a long plane flight and many miles physically separate us, the spirit, the friendship, the shared mission of education and research of our great universities made me feel very much at home,” Folt said.

Drawing on the history of the Galápagos, Folt’s speech focused on the importance of change and preparing for the “big leap” into the next phase of their lives.

“Darwin once said ‘It’s not the strongest of the species that survive, nor is it the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change,’” she said. “Graduates, you are ready for that change and it’s time for your big flight into the unknown.”

Folt also urged the graduates to be open to the world around them, stay nimble and continue to serve and innovate for the public good.

“I truly believe that the future will be written by the people who work on solutions, who know how to work with others and who not only care, but act to be a force for good,” she said.

Published June 26, 2017
By Brandon Bieltz, University Communications