Welcome to the Class of 2022 Commencement Exercises of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. It is so good to see you all gathered here this morning, and we are all excited to celebrate your accomplishments and mark this moment together.
First, Happy Mother’s Day to the moms! We are grateful you are here to celebrate this important occasion with your family. The last time I stood before you as a Class was during your Convocation four years ago when you entered Carolina. That feels like a lifetime ago to me, so I can only imagine what it feels like to all of you. I’m not going to quiz you on what I said … I had to go back and look myself. But I talked about how you were about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, four years of challenging classes, deepening friendships, life-changing study abroad opportunities, internships and mentors … and so much more.
I offered my sincere hope that before graduation, you’d get to rush Franklin Street and celebrate a basketball win alongside a joyful rush of your fellow Tar Heels. I know you’ve had a stranger and harder journey than most in your time at Carolina, but I hope that most of those hopes came to pass.
Hubert Davis’s Tar Heels certainly delivered on the rushing-Franklin-Street part, putting an exclamation point on your final semester. We didn’t get a seventh national title, but by the end of this extraordinary year, that felt almost beside the point. Something about this team felt bigger than a banner, and I think there are lessons in that.
So, if you’ll indulge me — I’ve been a professor of exercise and sport science and a Carolina fan longer than I’ve been a chancellor — I want to share three things I learned from this year’s history-making run by our men’s basketball team.
First, there is something powerful about playing like you have nothing to lose. Nobody, at the start of this season, had this team pegged for a national title. It was Hubert’s first year as head coach. A lot of our players were still growing into their talent, still finding their stride. And there were some early losses that raised doubts about whether we’d even see the Heels in the NCAA tournament at all, let alone standing tall through the final buzzer in New Orleans. If you had Carolina going all the way in your bracket, you are either a superfan or a super optimist, and I salute your dedication.
But instead of coasting through the season, writing it off as a building year, this team embraced the freedom that comes from soft expectations. They relished the joy of surprising critics and delighting the people who were rooting for them. And there is real joy in outclassing your skeptics, going above and beyond what anyone expected of you. This team didn’t internalize the doubts of others; they let it rip and proved that destiny is not fixed. You get to write your own story, no matter what someone else has written for you. Second, most of life’s successes come not from honing your personal talent or focusing on your own ambitions, but when you build a genuine love and respect for the people alongside you. The thing people noticed about this team, the thing that took this season from mediocre to marvelous, is that they learned to play as a team.
Coach Davis made it a priority to meet with the players every week to talk about life — about friends, family, off-court goals for their time at Carolina. They got to know each other as people, not just teammates. Those bonds make all the difference in the clutch. You work harder for those you love, put in the extra effort, make the extra sacrifice. Relationships bring meaning to everything you do, and make even the toughest moments something to cherish. So make time to build those bonds. Look for teams that value that bonding. Celebrate a culture of respect and affection, because the world needs more of both.
Finally, this team didn’t hide the struggle. They knew that admitting when things are hard, asking for help when you need it, is a sign of strength, not an admission of weakness.
One of the best things I read all year was a New York Times article about Leaky Black, who rose to the occasion during some of the most important moments of this season. But it wasn’t a story about Leaky’s talent on the court, the brilliance of his passes or his intense defense. It was about anxiety, about turning to prayer, meditation and therapy to work through the very real pressures of life. “I spoke from the heart,” Leaky said. And I’m so glad he did. Because you know what? People embraced him. His team embraced him. This campus and this community embraced him.
And because of that, Leaky and his teammates helped deliver an extraordinary season for all of us. Everyone has moments of doubt and struggle. Everyone has moments when they need others for support. Don’t carry it alone; speak from your heart, and invite others to do the same. All of us are here today by the grace of our own hard work and the generosity of others. It takes both. The teachers and family members who have cheered you on; the generations of North Carolinians who have worked and sacrificed to build this university; the friends and classmates who steadied you over the last few years and celebrated alongside you.
It’s been a beautiful spring here in Chapel Hill — the warming, brightening days we all needed, the send-off you all deserved. I’m grateful for it, and at the same time, it magnifies what we missed for the better part of two years, what you sacrificed during the height of your college career so that we could all get through a difficult time. I say this to every class, but I will say it especially to you: we want to see you back here in Chapel Hill. You have earned more days in this magical place than you were able to claim, but you’ve got a lifetime to make up for it. May your class reunions and homecoming weekends be legendary in all the right ways.
May you be like the Carolina Classes of ’70, ’71 and ’72 who have been celebrating with you all weekend and are here with us in Kenan Stadium today.
Class of 2022, thank you. For your sacrifices, your achievements, your embodiment of all that Carolina is meant to be. Congratulations!