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2021 Winter Commencement

Graduates, welcome and congratulations. Today we gather to recognize your hard work and celebrate this well-earned moment.

Earning a degree is a remarkable achievement under the best of circumstances. And as we all know, you made it to this day under some truly extraordinary circumstances.

Facing down the uncertainty and anxiety of the last two years may prove to be the most important lesson of your time at Carolina.

Because learning how to live – even thrive – with uncertainty is part of the human condition.

As a neuroscientist, I know that our brains (or our minds) crave patterns, predictability, and security – and understandably so. But so many of the great challenges confronting your generation will demand a willingness to experiment, to innovate, to connect across difference — to live and work in the ambiguous space between the world we have and the world we need.

I think you’re ready.

In the spring of 2020, before we knew just how much we were capable of, many people were predicting a dire scenario for this University and for this class of students.

There were worries of mass dropouts as classes shifted online and students scrambled to keep up.

A financial crisis loomed as dining halls, dorms and stadiums closed their doors.

Some people were even predicting an end to the brick-and-mortar college experience, calling it a luxury we couldn’t afford or a risk we couldn’t bear in a post-pandemic world.

Yet here you — here we stand — having proven more resilient than any of us could have imagined.

Our faculty were tireless and creative in their teaching, our staff was heroic in keeping vital services up and running, and our governing institutions — from Congress to state lawmakers — were remarkably supportive in keeping higher education on track.

But most of all, you, your fellow students, and your families were amazingly determined to stay the course and get the education you came for.

Because of that, this great institution weathered the storm. I’m proud to have been a part of that, and I hope you are, too.

The flip side of uncertainty is opportunity. When it’s not clear what direction the road is heading, or what the outcome will be, that’s when you have an opportunity to forge your own path, to determine your own outcome.

As you begin your careers, you’re entering a world of new possibilities, new opportunities that didn’t exist before.

When you’re at the peak of your careers, you’ll be doing things that we can’t even imagine yet.

That much uncertainty can be daunting, but it doesn’t have to be paralyzing. You can’t control the circumstances you’re given, but you have a great deal of agency in what you make of them.

Frank Bruni, a longtime writer for the New York Times and a devoted Carolina alum, came back to campus earlier this semester to give the Thomas Wolfe Lecture.

Sitting alongside Frank Bruni on stage at the Student Union during his lecture – I heard him speak a lot about uncertainty, about vulnerability, about the realization that so much of what you count on can prove suddenly fragile.

A few years ago, Frank woke up and realized he’d lost most of the vision in his right eye.

And the sudden medical condition that blurred and dimmed half his eyesight gave him 1 in 5 odds of losing the other half within a few years. He had to grapple with the real possibility of becoming blind.

At first, Frank did what any normal person would do — he felt aggrieved and adrift, and struggled to make sense of such a stark change in his world.

And then he did what any thoughtful, well-grounded person ought to do — he went in search of wisdom from others who have faced down even starker hardship.

That led him to people like Nancy Root, who learned to navigate the world in a wheelchair at the age of 82. “She’s a human being struggling to make the best of a bad situation, finding joy despite causes for sorrow, honing a spirit that transcends any setback. She is you, she is me, she is all of us.”

That’s because personal struggle is not something singular and extraordinary, but as Frank put it that night, something “utterly ordinary in a general sense, because every life has twists. Turns. Challenges.”

All of us, sooner or later, are called to confront unexpected hardship. To decide how we’ll meet the moments we cannot control.

You’ve all gotten an earlier taste of that human condition more than we would have wished, and I for one am proud of how you handled it.

You kept learning, kept working toward a better future, and kept faith with your friends, family, classmates, and our world class faculty.

You have proven just how capable you are of overcoming adversity and seizing the opportunities that uncertainty presents.

I can’t wait to see what you accomplish.