2019 Winter Commencement

Today, as you graduate and leave a place you call home, I urge you to be heroes. To not just see and hear about the needs of our world, but to respond. To see the problems of others and make them your own.

Opening Remarks

Welcome to the 2019 Winter Commencement Ceremony of the nation’s first public university, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Today we recognize your hard work, accomplishments and contributions here at Carolina. You’re graduating from an amazing institution. It’s NOT ONLY the leading global public research university in the nation, but also a place that you can always call home.

That feeling of home, and the memories that make it so, will stay with you. Maybe it’ll be the memory of sitting around a TV in an overcrowded dorm watching an ACC game. Or of looking over at your friend at 6am in the library as you both realize your 8am exam is going to be rough. Or a conversation in the lab with one of your research mentors. Or maybe while reading poetry at Linda’s as part of Michael McPhee’s Linda’s Fellowship. Whatever it is that binds you to this place as home – the good memories and the tough memories – I urge you to hold on to them. This will always be a home for you.

I have lived in Chapel Hill for almost 25 years. My family has grown up here, and I have lived in North Carolina longer than I’ve lived in any other state. But my hometown will always be a small town outside of Pittsburgh. It’s called Latrobe, Pennsylvania; population 8,300. It’s home to the Pittsburgh Steeler’s training camp. The banana split was invented there. And even though growing up I drank the same water as the legendary golfer Arnold Palmer, who was born in Latrobe as well, my golf game never quite got there.

It was also the childhood home of someone you may have heard of, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. For most of you, Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood stopped running on PBS a few years after you were born. But I know that many of your parents watched him and absorbed many of his values that he impressed upon his viewers: kindness, humility, respect and neighborliness.

Mr. Rogers once said: “We live in a world in which we need to share responsibility. It’s easy to say ‘it’s not my child, not my community, not my world, not my problem.’ Then there are those who see the need and respond. I consider those people my heroes.” Today, as you graduate and leave a place you call home, I urge you to be heroes. To not just see and hear about the needs of our world, but to respond. To see the problems of others and make them your own.

I know, this is not easy. But I know you are up to the task. I’ve seen you fight for values you believe in, making your voices heard in classrooms and dorm rooms, debating political questions and research questions. You’ve studied abroad, written essays and theses, finished service projects, and learned about the challenges and opportunities in our state, nation, and world. You have the tools to create what our world should be. Now, you also have the option to throw up your hands and say it’s too much. To say that it’s just not your problem. But that’s not what I’ve seen you do at Carolina. It’s not what you learned here at Carolina.

Tomorrow starts your post-college career. You have the opportunity to respond to the challenges you see. As you take the next steps, remember Mr. Roger’s call and make the problems of others your focus, and in many ways, your own. That is our mission as the nation’s first public university and I’m confident that during your time at Carolina, you have absorbed that sense of responsibility. I hope it becomes yours.

So, I want to extend a warm welcome today to our world class faculty, our esteemed guests, platform party, staff, families and friends. We are all here to celebrate YOU, the more than 1,500 total graduates who receive your degrees today. While not all of you can be with us in person, we honor each one of you and the dedication and hard work it took to get to this day. It is a privilege to recognize and thank for their service, today’s military affiliated graduates, including brand-new ensigns and second lieutenants in the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marines. They were honored Friday at our Red, White & Carolina Blue graduation ceremony, and will you please stand now and be recognized. We also celebrate the 253 Carolina Firsts, people who are the first in their families to attend a university. Will you please stand to be recognized?


Charge to the Graduates

Welcome to the ranks of the 336,000-plus alumni of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You are graduating today in 2019, but most of you will be retiring around the year 2070. What jobs will you be retiring from? Regardless of what degree might be on your diploma today, I’m confident that our world-class faculty has prepared you to excel in your chosen field, but to also successfully pivot as needed, toward those careers that may not yet exist, but will have significant impact in the world we live in.

Earlier, I quoted my hometown’s hero, Mr. Rogers, as he described what it means to be a hero: someone who responds to the needs of the world. As we conclude our program today, my charge to you is to first, be the hero Mr. Rogers describes….and to be a hero that your hometown would be proud of. You may never live there again – or you may be going back tomorrow. But never forget the impact it had on your life. Be someone that your hometown owns: be a son or a daughter of your place, who gives back to your community.

Second, I charge you to give it your all. UNC Women’s Soccer coach Anson Dorrance once described a champion as “someone bent over, drenched in sweat, at a point of exhaustion, when no one is watching.” Be that person. And do it trying to solve your community’s problems. Be an influencer, a catalyst, someone who answers the call to action. There will be many times when the challenges just seem too big. And maybe they are. But always keep trying. That is the moment where greatness happens.

And finally – be patient. Because your dream job won’t likely be your first one. It is about deferred gratification: knowing you must pay the price now to reap the reward later. So I urge you to take steps that will get you to a job with a mission you believe in. It took me hard work and patience to get here today, leading our great university. This job is an honor, and I am excited for it because I believe in Carolina’s mission. The work our great university does – preparing graduates like yourselves – is the most vital work I’ve ever been a part of. My hope is that in the months to come, just as you throw yourself into the hard work of improving your hometown, your state, your country, your world – Carolina will continue on its journey to being the best it can be.

Our own Thomas Wolfe described Carolina “as close to magic as I’ve ever been.” So graduates, I hope you will return home often to visit this place of magic. Now before we leave, I know the graduates have many people to thank. It is a Carolina tradition to turn and thank those who have helped get you here. Can I ask now for all the families, friends and faculty of our graduates to please stand. Graduates, let’s show them your appreciation with a round of applause.