Speeches

Class of 2020 Commencement

"You are here today because someone believed in you and in the possibility for you to do great things. That belief hasn’t changed. We all still believe in you. If there’s one thing you hear today, I want you to hear this: we, your family your faculty, the administration, and I – we all imagine incredible, out of this world, unbelievable possibilities for you."

Opening Remarks

Welcome to our celebration of the 2020 graduates at America’s first public university – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

It is so good to see you. We have been waiting for this day for a long time – 75 weeks or 525 days to be exact – and we are excited to celebrate your accomplishments.

I want to begin with the elegant, classic, immortal words of one of my all-time favorite students … Ferris Bueller. Probably not the most moral person we should aspire to be … but still he teaches some great lessons.

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”  

Life does move pretty fast. For you, the Class of 2020, it’s not that life moved fast as much as it changed and became something completely different, REALLY fast. You thought you had a few months left at Carolina, and then suddenly, a pandemic hit, and time moved.  You lost the final moments and memories you thought you would have.

This weekend is about taking back that time – for each one of you. It’s about stopping and looking around. Taking in the beauty of this campus. Saying thank you to a professor who challenged you to see the world differently. Cheering on the Tar Heels at Kenan Stadium again.

It’s about checking in on yourself and your friends. Today is World Mental Health Day, and I hope you’ve been able to reconnect with people who know you, to share your struggles, talk about the challenges you face and what you’ve overcome. This is important. Keep doing this for each other, now and in the future.

We don’t want you to miss this moment. We don’t want you to miss the traditions and the experiences that define your last semester: climbing the Bell Tower, taking pictures at the Old Well, and turning your tassel. We want you to reflect on what your time here in Chapel Hill means for your life.

And as you reflect, I hope you remember three things.

First, you, the Class of 2020, are unique. No other class in our 228-year history is like you. You are a year and a half removed from your actual graduation date. You have begun to see the value of your Carolina degree. And I hope you’ve experienced a yearning for this community. You have a different perspective than any class before you.

That unique perspective may not be something you wanted. But it will be part of your lives forever.  

Second, remember what you’ve learned here.

Remember how your thinking was changed when you rubbed elbows with our researchers solving some of the biggest challenges of our time.

Remember when you attended seminars by visiting scholars or traveled to another country as part of a study abroad program.

Remember what you learned resolving conflicts and navigating differences in your residential hall.

Remember what you learned from discussions on Polk Place, around a table in the dining hall, and walking home with friends.

And at the very least, I hope you learned that there is still much you don’t yet know. Keep learning, growing, and remaining curious.

Third, remember that people believe in you. Earlier this year, I listened to an interview with one of our incredible faculty members, Tressie McMillan Cottom. She is a professor in our School of Information and Library Sciences, a MacArthur fellow, an author and a New York Times opinion writer.

In the interview, she talks about her grandmother, a creative, smart, resourceful, and incredibly brave woman. When her grandmother was just starting out on her own, she moved to Harlem because that’s where the jobs were, and spent most of her life working as a domestic worker.

As a Black woman during that time, that was her only option. She was limited by what was available.

Dr. Cottom asks this question: why me and not her? She asks, why am I successful when my grandmother couldn’t be? Her grandmother was just as smart, just as capable, just as hard-working.  

Dr. Cottom’s answer is this “My success is always limited by how well other people can imagine the possibility of me.” Our world today could imagine her doing great things, things people didn’t imagine for her grandmother.

We live in a country that encourages us to shoot for the stars and to imagine the impossible. But if we are truly honest with ourselves, we know Dr. Cottom is right. We are constrained by the systems around us. We are limited by what people think might be possible for us. I’m here as chancellor because people believed me.

Your speaker is here today because someone saw the possibilities in him when he arrived to UNC as a student in 1968 from Asheville. Because his mom, his teachers, and his coaches believed in him, he sat where you are sitting – here in Kenan Stadium – and graduated in 1972.   

Each one of you graduated from the nation’s first public university because someone imagined that was possible for you. Maybe it was your parents, a faculty member, a coach, or a mentor.   

You are here today because someone believed in you and in the possibility for you to do great things. 

That belief hasn’t changed. We all still believe in you. If there’s one thing you hear today, I want you to hear this: we, your family your faculty, the administration, and I – we all imagine incredible, out of this world, unbelievable possibilities for you. 

You may not believe it, and the past year and a half may have made you doubt it.  

But we believe you will question why things are the way they are. We believe you will be part of solving the grand challenges of our time. We believe you will build careers that don’t exist yet. In short, we believe you will change the world.

As Ferris Bueller, said, “the question isn’t what are we going to do….the question is what aren’t we going to do.” In other words, you the Class of 2020 will do it all. Even with the constraints you face, we believe you will do great things.  

Introduction of Keynote Speaker, Roy Williams

Now it’s time to hear from your Commencement speaker, a legendary Tar Heel.

A two-time Carolina graduate who led the men’s basketball team to three NCAA championships during his 18 years as head coach here, Roy Williams led teams for 33 seasons and 903 wins as a college basketball head coach.

The 2007 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee led the Tar Heels to a 485-163 record, six Final Fours, nine ACC regular-season championships and three ACC Tournament crowns.

Truly nobody has loved this University more. Hundreds of student athletes, coaches and players have prospered under his leadership, but also thousands of students who never met Coach Williams benefitted from his AND his wife Wanda’s generosity.

Coach Williams has represented Carolina with passion, honor and integrity, serving as an incredible ambassador for this university. He IS Carolina basketball…and I know he’s been as much a part of your college experience as the Old Well or the stone walls.

Coach Williams is an inspiration on and off the court, and his love for Carolina is unmatched. I know he will provide sound wisdom and share his passion for Carolina with you today.

Thank you and welcome Coach!