2017 Winter Commencement

"Nothing is more exciting than to be looking out at this sea of Carolina blue and celebrating your hard work and accomplishment, with people who have cared for, challenged and supported you on every step of your journey."

Chancellor Folt at 2017 Winter Commencement
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill celebrates the graduation of 1,182 students at the annual Winter Commencement December 17, 2017 at the Dean E. Smith Center. Chancellor Carol L. Folt presided over the ceremony. Dr. Satish Gopal, cancer program director for UNC Project-Malawi, delivered the Commencement address. (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

CHANCELLOR CAROL L. FOLT Winter Commencement

December 17, 2017

Dean E. Smith Center


I love this day. I’m sure every UNC president and chancellor since the UNC Chapel Hill opened its doors two-hundred and twenty-four years ago, has looked forward to graduation day. Many of you were in my first or second class. I greeted you during my own first days as Chancellor, probably like you a little nervous, a little lonely, but very excited to get started on our new adventure. Along the way, together, we, students, faculty, staff built a body of work, shared experiences, stretched our minds, made memories with friends we will cherish for a lifetime, and together, we built a home.

Nothing is more exciting than to be looking out at this sea of Carolina blue and celebrating your hard work and accomplishment, with people who have cared for, challenged and supported you on every step of your journey. In fact, halfway across the world, Tar Heels in Malawi, Africa are live streaming your graduation. Join me in giving them a warm Tar Heel welcome.

As you know, not all days have been or will be like this. I’m sure you’ve had days spent struggling over problems, hours alone in labs, studios, libraries, and spent lots of late nights alone working in your rooms. You’ve written and re-written papers and spent hours reading pages of dense material that didn’t always make sense. You lost a lot of sleep, and probably consumed a lot of coffee.

Of course, that’s how it goes. Success is like this. Any achievement, any problem worth solving takes some long, lonely, frustrating, and difficult days. It reminds me of a story I heard about Albert Einstein. When he took a position at Princeton (after already winning the Nobel Prize) he was told that he could have whatever he wanted to furnish his office. He said he wanted a table and chair and a typewriter and most importantly, he said he wanted a very large wastepaper basket. I just love that image – Albert rolling his equations into a ball and shooting them off into the wastebasket. What went into that basket- can you imagine? But we all do that when we are learning something – we try over and over and over again.

In your last few moments before you officially graduate, I want to reflect with you on what to do in the days and years ahead, when once again you face the challenges that inevitably accompany life and success. First, I urge you to do what you’ve learned here – to rely on your sense of wonder and creativity. Late UNC medical school Professor Oliver Smithies won the 2007 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology for his pioneering research developing new techniques to study diseases. I loved the way Professor Smithies expressed his secret to long years of success—his joy of wonder and creativity. He told us that he never went to work – instead he went to play every day. Find something you love so much that you can say – as Oliver said – “I never did a day’s work in my life.”

Second, I urge you to rely on your hard work and persistence, even when no one is watching. In 1901 on a beach in North Carolina, a frustrated Wilbur exclaimed to his brother Orville Wright “Not in a thousand years will man ever fly.” Yet, like Einstein tossing page after page in the trash in search of truth, they kept working, and crashing, until one day, on a lonely beach in Kitty Hawk, with no one watching, they took flight, and history was made.

Finally, I urge you to believe in yourself, even when you’re doing something no one else has done. Preston Dobbins came to UNC in 1967, in the midst of the civil rights movement. As we all remember, this was a time of great social upheaval. UNC had just hired Professor Hortense McClinton, our first African American faculty member the previous year, and he was joining only 107 other African American students. Preston said “I made myself a promise that I wouldn’t get involved in anything here.… Just pretty much settle down and enjoy doing nothing but being a student.” But that didn’t last—thankfully. Just one month later, he founded the Black Student Movement, which this year is celebrating its 50th birthday at Chapel Hill. The social activism and commitment of Preston and many, many others over the years ignited meaningful, needed change – none of it was easy to achieve, and many changes are still needed. Preston and the BSM not only helped us create a more diverse, inclusive place – the students, faculty, staff and organizations of today, continue to propel Carolina to strive harder to be the place we want to be, the place we need to be for all.

Wonder and creativity, grit and determination, never giving up, and believing in yourself will propel you forward throughout your lives. You certainly know what this looks like; you’ve seen it every day, in all fields from business, to industry, from political service to community building, from health care to entrepreneurship, from education to law. And in a few moments, you’ll hear from your commencement speaker, UNC’s very own Professor Satish Gopal, whose own life exemplifies this character of hard work, excellence and service to others. He is part of a pioneering program that has been uniting people from Carolina with the people of Malawi for more than 20 years. Working together, they have helped to change the very nature of international partnerships in global health, helped to radically reduce HIV transmission and improved healthcare around the world.

Dr. Gopal directs cancer programs for UNC-Project Malawi, and I visited them in Africa this summer. There, I witnessed how a decades-long collaboration between our staff and doctors here and those in Malawi — together with the Malawi Ministry of Health and universities in Malawi — have improved care for millions of people. It is a labor of love and mutual respect. Starting in one room, now with over 375 staff and 40 ongoing research studies, Project Malawi’s research, care giving and training has led to UNC’s HIV programs being ranked 6th in the world. They are true Tar Heel trademarks, just like all of our National Champions, our Nobel Prize and other prize winners, our accomplished faculty, staff and alumni in all fields, and you will soon be joining their ranks.

Today, we applaud the service, determination and accomplishments of the 491 undergraduates, 567 master’s students, 9 professional students, and 99 doctoral students who receive their degrees today. While not all of the more than 1,000 winter commencement graduates can be with us in person, as many are already off in their new jobs and programs, we celebrate you all.

It is a privilege to recognize among our graduates today military veterans and active-duty personnel, including brand-new ensigns and second lieutenants in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines, including members of the inaugural Physician’s Assistant class, 45% of whom are veterans.  Will all active-duty and veterans please stand and be recognized. [Pause for applause.]

We also celebrate 102 Carolina Firsts, graduates who are the first in their families to attend a university, and we applaud the bridges you will build to help pave the way for so many others. Will you please stand to be recognized? [Pause for applause.]

It now is my pleasure to introduce my distinguished colleagues on the platform today, who also believe in YOUR capacity and in the promise of your Carolina education. I will call their names and ask them to stand and remain standing.  Please hold your applause until I have recognized everyone. [Chancellor introduces participants]

Thank you all for taking part in this important ceremony. [Chancellor leads the applause.]


Chancellor’s Charge to the Graduates:

Congratulations Graduates! Please be seated. Welcome to the ranks of the 322,000 plus alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You are joining an illustrious group of graduates who are changing our world.

Harriet Tubman said, “Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” And by the way, along your way to the stars, you may bump into Zena Cardman, Carolina graduate Class of 2010, who just became a member of the newest class of astronauts…or one of our incredible men and women basketball players who defy gravity every game.

From your first day here to this day, each of you has been creating your own journey, an improvisational jazz score – with each note played to your own tempo, at times discordant, at others in perfect harmony. Each of your diplomas will say the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, but no two will be the same. Billie Holiday, the legendary blues singer once said, “If I am going to sing like someone else, then I don’t need to sing at all.” Well I think she would certainly appreciate the songs, the individual melodies sung by everyone in this room.

My charge to you is simple – keep working on what matters to you, even when no one is watching. Believe in yourself, but keep an open mind, question your own assumptions, and reach for understanding across difference.  Every student I have talked with at Carolina, has expressed the heartfelt desire to be part of something bigger, more meaningful than themselves. This is a very special quality, a true mark of humanity, and a deep aspect of the Carolina community we all love.  Keep this as a part of your lives.

And finally, always remember you have a support network. You may think that no one is watching or caring, but we, your Tar Heel Family, are here cheering you on. So when you are tossing your ideas in the wastebasket, or flying alone at Kitty Hawk, or working late nights by candlelight in Malawi, remember this moment. And know your families, your friends, your professors believe in you. We can’t wait to see what you will achieve. You aren’t leaving this place, you are carrying the best of it with you, and we are humbled to be part of your life.

Now before we close, I will follow another Carolina tradition. Will all the families and friends please rise – the parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters? Graduates, now it is your turn to say thank you. [Applause] Let’s also thank Director of University Band, Jeffrey Fuchs; your fellow student musicians for their music today; our student marshals for their work; and the Carolina staff who made today possible. It is now my pleasure to call on Madeline Edwards to lead us in singing together “Hark the Sound.”