CHANCELLOR CAROL L. FOLT Commencement Ceremony
May 13, 2018
Welcome to the 2018 Spring Commencement Ceremony of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You are a remarkable sight – smiling faces in a sea & sky of Carolina Blue. I have to admit I was a little nervous as I approached the podium just now. After all, I was out there saying I was going to take a selfie with all of you – and I think I fell short. But, I still have one more chance – so here goes!
I love to stroll across campus at daybreak before graduation. It’s quiet – the brick paths and majestic trees are dreamlike – and the buzz, the wild dreams and the memories you make here every day are so vivid, I can conjure you up in my mind. And NOW here you are – take a deep breath – and a sip of water – to savor and feel gratitude in this moment. You’ve made a home here with some of the brightest and most passionate people on the planet. And you’ve forever become a part of this treasured place– lux et libertas, of and for the people – 224 years young.
I start with a warm welcome to our esteemed guests, platform party, faculty, staff, families, friends, and our soon-to-be graduates. And, of course as THIS is Mother’s Day – we welcome with joy and love – the mothers, grandmothers, and – hopefully – a few great-grandmothers with us today in presence or in spirit. Graduates – you’ve earned this moment with hard work and determination.
You brought your true selves to Carolina – each with different expectations, identities and dreams, and probably some similar worries, like who can I sit with at dinner in Lenoir? And how do I sign up for basketball lottery tickets? Many of you arrived silently humming “Let It Go” from Frozen” – admit it! That fall, millions of people, including Coach Williams and me, had buckets of ice water dumped over our heads to support research for ALS. Protests and activism were a part of your generation. And a girl from Pakistan, Malala, became the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner in history at 17 – close to your age.
At Convocation, I said you wouldn’t all be together again until this very day – it would go by quickly I said, make the most of it. I was right about it going quickly, but I wasn’t right about everything. You may remember that I was wearing Google Glasses, and talking about how they would be the next big thing…oops, not so much. And with National Championships in six different sports, including the men’s basketball championship in your junior year – I know you WERE ALL together many times storming Franklin street!
Dr. Seuss said, “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” Your shared moments and memories will bind you even when thousands of miles draw you apart. From your first sip at the Old Well to the moment when you toss your hats to the Carolina Blue sky – your ties to each other and this place we love will continue to grow. From Sunset Serenades to your first LDOC… from building snowmen to the Dance Marathon… from eating late night pancakes to sharing meals at Topo.
You also share memories with our gifted faculty, coaches and staff. One of our faculty, Dr. Aziz Sancar, even received the Nobel Prize while you were here. Here and abroad, you worked together, wrote papers, novels, made discoveries, acted, built companies, served our nation, cared for others and won awards and championships. Some of your most powerful memories will come from actions you’ve taken together – and you’ve made a difference. With more than a million hours of service… carrying forward the Black Student Movement, 50 years old this year… and by speaking out on issues that matter to you, like HB2, the confederate monument, free speech, fighting sexual assault with “take back the night” and working to get out the vote.
But it’s the indelible moments with friends, like crying and laughing together, that secure friendships and best stand the test of time. The remarkable 50-year reunion Class of 1968 could tell you a lot about change and friendships that last a lifetime. They came of age during the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the opening of doors to women and minorities. Well before you, they wore miniskirts and bell-bottoms. But not unlike you, they pushed for change and many were activists. For the next 50 years, they used their fire and passion to create new industries, build and serve their communities and lead innovation around the world. Theirs are large shoes to fill. One of their own, former MIT Chancellor and pioneer in the fight for affordable housing, Phil Clay, is receiving an honorary degree today. Please join me in welcoming the great Class of 1968 home.
Graduates, you share a lot with them, but you’re also very different. Even though you all were all born in the last century, Class of 2018 is definitely a generation of the new millennium – the “if you can imagine it, you can bring it to life” generation. You’ll get jobs and move to new ones faster than ever before. You’re digitally literate and connected in real time across the planet like no other generation. You live in the most ethnically and culturally diverse global world ever. And you juggle things like no one else.
But, you’ll need those skills and more to address the complex divisive issues we face, to take advantage of opportunities that will come at you so quickly and to create the vibrant, inclusive, sustainable communities your children, their children and the children of the world deserve. As daunting as it may sound today, I truly believe the future of our nation and our planet rests on the choices, integrity and humanity your generation will use to ride the waves of change that already are here.
So, now let’s celebrate you, Carolina’s Class of 2018, the fresh face of our future… 3,886 undergraduates, 825 masters students, 637 professional students and 262 doctoral students… And 281 members of Phi Beta Kappa… and our 796 Carolina Firsts – first in their families to go to college… Our 482 Carolina Covenant Scholars, and our 25 Chancellor’s Science Scholars. I would also like to ask all of our active duty and veteran graduates and those in the stands to rise – many of them are wearing special red, white and Carolina blue cords. Our graduates include 23 newly commissioned ensigns and second lieutenants in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Air Force. Please join me in thanking everyone on the field and in the stands who has served our country in this way. Thank you for your service.
Graduates, the degree we’re about to confer is a milestone that marks the start of another journey in your life. Your future is brighter because of your degree, and I know that you won’t forget how much you’ve been given. Carolina seems to bring out the call to serve and a feeling of immense gratitude in all of us. Perhaps that is in part because we know that the support of millions of hard-working people in North Carolina and the nation, most without your advantages, together with gifts from alumni and benefactors who care about you have made this day possible. We trust in you to find your best and personal way to use and repay the faith bestowed in you.
Introduction of keynote speaker, Rye Barcott
Seventeen years ago, Rye Barcott was sitting where you are today in his Carolina Blue robe. He attended UNC on an ROTC scholarship, and while here he co-founded with Salim Mohamed and Tabitha Festo from Kenya the non-profit “Carolina for Kibera,” dedicated to breaking cycles of violence and developing young leaders in some of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Kenya. After graduation, he served in the U.S. Marine Corps, with tours in Bosnia, the Horn of Africa, and Iraq. And Archbishop Desmond Tutu described Rye’s best-selling book—It Happened on The Way to War—with just one word – Tremendous. Rye describes his best memories of UNC as meeting Professor Jim Peacock who challenged him to work hard and take risks… and even more memorable, meeting his future wife, Dr. Tracey Barcott. And talk about faculty support… Tracey and Rye were married in Jim and Florence Peacock’s Chapel Hill home. Rye and Tracey are here today with their two wonderful children and Rye’s parents, who also met at Carolina. Two generations of Tar Heels and hopefully a third. Today, Rye is starting a new mission. His initiative, With Honor, is working to elect to Congress a cross-partisan coalition of post-9/11 veterans. He is an inspiration to me and so many others for his dedication to service and commitment to changing the world and I can’t wait to hear his message on how to persevere through the pain in life. Ladies and gentlemen, Rye Barcott. Welcome home!
Charge to the Graduates
Congratulations Graduates! You now join the 300,000 plus alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Always a bittersweet moment – the last chance I have the privilege to address you as a class, but the start of something wonderful for you!
You have been an inspirational class, filled with leaders, people who care deeply about helping others. You’ve awed us with your accomplishments and inspired us with your character. I’ve spent the last five years travelling around the world meeting Carolina alums, the group you join. Tar Heels are among some of the most caring, talented, generous and humble people you’ll ever meet. The greater angel of our nature urges us to live with a sense of purpose and a bias to urgent action. It drives us to believe that to be a Tar Heel is to be someone who gives back and builds community. And it leaves us with the constant call … to do more – of the public for the public.
We stand at a moment of great change. A moment where so much making us unique is on the line. But when I look out now at 4,000 plus new graduates, I’m optimistic. Every one of you seems determined to make something important happen.
So my charge to you is simple –
First, and this will shock your parents – never work a day in your life. That’s what Nobel Prize winner, UNC’s own Oliver Smithies told students a couple years back – “I don’t go to work every day; I go to play every day…Find something you love so much that you can say – as I can say – I never did a day’s work in my life.”
Second… Take on the impossible; if you don’t who will? Three years ago, I spent three days at a conference with famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking who recently passed away. The world’s foremost experts on black holes had convened to solve a great mystery. Dr. Hawking distilled to a few words the goal that he woke seeking to do every single day, “My name is Stephen Hawking,” he said, “and I want to solve the mysteries of the universe.” And in spite of incredible difficulties, he showed that a single man, brought to a complete physical standstill for decades with ALS, could inspire an entire planet to keep reaching for the stars.
Third, no matter how big your dream, it will be the little things that are most powerful. I think Mother Theresa said it best, “Peace begins with a smile.” We’ve all seen it – a smile disarms anger, criticism and fear. No action that starts with a smile is too small, and no smile offered with genuine feeling and empathy is ever out of place.
So graduates, you’re about to scatter in the breeze. I hope that like the class of 1968, over the next 50 years you will return to Carolina many times to reconnect and build new bonds – Carolina is your home – any time, for all time. You aren’t leaving this place, you are carrying the best of it with you. Your families, your friends, your professors believe in you. We can’t wait to see what you will achieve. Go out and solve the biggest mysteries. Be joyful, look skyward. Be true… and do it all with a smile. Thank you. Before we close it is my honor to continue another Carolina tradition. Will the families and friends of our graduates please rise… parents, spouses, children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and brothers and sisters, visiting friends… next door neighbors. Graduates, it is your turn to say thank you.