Welcome to the 2018 Convocation at America’s public university – the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Thank you, Savannah Putnam, our Student Body President, and the UNC Moonlight Dance Crew. Now it’s my turn – welcome new Tar Heels— the Class of 2022, and our new transfer, graduate and professional students.
Convocation is an historic academic tradition – our ceremony of welcome when we “convoke” or call together the entering class, and in a few minutes, it’s when you will solemnly pledge your commitment to act always with honor, integrity and respect. It is hard to believe but you won’t be together again as a class until graduation in 2022, although spontaneous celebrations on Franklin street come pretty close. If you can believe, graduation is a whopping 1,359 days away. Days that are bookended by a university’s greatest moments of celebration – convocation and graduation. A time like no other when you have almost unlimited opportunity to make your mark, learn, change and meet friends for life. Your time here matters – it is an incredible honor – you’ve worked hard to earn it, but I know you’ll always remember that you’ve been helped along the way. And you matter to me and all of us in Chapel Hill – we are excited to meet you and can’t wait to learn with you, listen to you and watch as you build your own community.
I’ve already met many of you and love your energy. For example, I met three sisters, one a first year, the other a junior and the third was an alum from the Class of 2017 at the GAA and New Student and Family Programs hosted dinner on Friday. I also met a mother, who is a UNC alumna and was just as excited as her daughter, a new first year. I’ve met transfer student, a new Morehead-Cain Scholar and one of my Chancellor’s Science Scholars. Yesterday – during move-in – I met students from all over our state, nation and the world, including students from Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. And by the way, let’s have a huge round of applause for all the people who have been working for months to make your start special – from the crew of welcome week, the RA’s who brought you here, the Carolina Thrift crew, the 330 Haulin’ Heels who helped you move in, our incredible dorm and parking staff and so many more I can’t mention them all.
When I woke up this morning, my thoughts were all about you. All day I thought – while so much has been accomplished here – the best is yet to come, and you are going to be a part of that. You’re joining a special place at a time of extraordinary change. J.K. Rowling once said, “We do not need magic to transform our world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already.” As you find your power here, you will transform our world.
So, take a moment. I want you to do two things that have helped me enormously over the years. First, I want you to start by remembering exactly what you are feeling today – when everything is fresh, new and unknown. My own memories of feeling fresh and open to the unknown always replenish me and keep me looking forward. Like headlights on a foggy road, I’ve found that looking far ahead keeps me on the road. I also want you to pick something, some wild goal, something really hard, and fix it in your mind. I love nature and the outdoors so last year I picked fixing my injured knee so that within 4 years, I could do something I have dreamed about forever – climb Mt. Kilimanjaro. I’m not there yet, but I’m on my way and I hope at your graduation we can celebrate the surpassing of our wild, hard goals together.
Carolina has a rich tradition of people who set goals and make things happen. So, my first piece of free advice is to start by getting to know your talented classmates. They’ll become your lifelong friends and inspirations. They’ll support you, pick you up when you fall and celebrate when you rise. Your class is filled with entrepreneurs and innovators, aspiring scientists and artists. You are veterans, champion student-athletes and community activists. Your class has the highest number of first-gen college students and students from rural counties since we began collecting data 15 years ago. There are 97 North Carolina counties and 38 countries are represented in this class. You’re smart, you’re hard working and you all share a desire to make the world a better place for others.
I’m also hoping you’ll study or work overseas, take academic risks and learn about the arts, cultures and histories of the world. Your best time at Chapel Hill may be spent in Africa, China or London. I’m hoping you’ll champion a cause, turn out the vote, participate in student government and express the concerns of your generation. If you don’t, who will? We know from experience, that you’ll launch startups and social ventures, you’ll excel in and out of the classroom and you’ll continue the Tar Heel tradition of community service. And yes, you’re going to get jobs in your preferred fields or continue your education within six months of receiving your bachelor’s degree – so relax, check it all out, this is going to be a fun ride.
My second piece of advice is to get to know your faculty. You have the chance to work with extraordinary faculty and staff, from around the world. Together, research by faculty in our schools topped the $1 billion mark. And guess what – students were a big part of it all. Our faculty are some of the brainiest, and most talented people anywhere, and they are dedicated to helping you thrive. These experts – scientists, writers, performers, business leaders, doctors, teachers, lawyers, policy gurus and even Nobel Prize winner, Aziz Sancar, will become your mentors and your friends. You can study with Doctor Joaquin Drut, a quantum physicist whose work goes well beyond that of Doctors Sheldon Cooper and Leonard Hofstadter on the Big Bang Theory. Or Professor Kathleen Harris whose pioneering research on teenagers is responsible for so much we know about what makes you tick. Or Professor Gabriel Trop whose work examines how 18th century theorists used poetry to change people’s views of the world. They’ll challenge you to think broadly and boldly, take you out of your comfort zone, and prepare you for the certain – uncertainty of our fast changing globally-driven world.
My third piece of advice is to stay humble and ever grateful. You’re joining generations of students and faculty who’ve changed the world – you’re not only expected to be like them, but also to uphold the grand principles of Lux and Libertas – light and liberty – at the heart of our mission. Being here is not a right, it is a privilege, and very few have it. Not only your families, but millions of people across the state, and thousands and thousands of alumni over the years have sacrificed so you could have this chance. All they ask is for you to honor their sacrifice with your integrity and gratitude and push yourself and our university to be our best.
My last piece of advice today is to celebrate and cherish the diversity in body and mind that is Carolina – the diversity that lives in people and their ideas who come from every economic, religious, ethnic, racial and social background. I meet with CEO’s from around the world quite often and I promise you, they never pick a single major as the key to success. They are looking for critical thinkers and communicators, and every one of them will place a premium on evaluating your ability (and your profile on social media) to work respectfully with people who are different, who don’t agree with you, don’t look like you and may not even like you. You’ve got the chance to learn how to do this right every day here at Carolina. Our university is a staunch supporter of the nation’s fundamental right to free speech. It is not always easy to hear free speech – but you can work on this too, in and out of the classroom, every day. By taking advantage of the diversity that is Carolina you’ll achieve some incredible things.
We lost a great American this week – a wonderful, soulful human being that gave so much of her heart and uplifted our spirits – The Queen of Soul, Ms. Aretha Franklin. Her 1967 recording of legendary Otis Redding’s song — R-E-S-P-E-C-T — became an international hit but it was so much more than a soul track – it became an anthem for a generation, and then future generations and an inspiration for so many causes that call for treating all with respect and dignity. Today, more than five decades after that recording, I want you to think about what respect means to you. At these challenging and polarizing times in our nation and world – make a silent pledge today, to treat everyone and at all times with respect. If we do that as a community, who knows what we can achieve.
I know everyone is anxious to get to Fall Fest, but just a few more thoughts before we all leave. Today, Class of 2022, you join a special community that stretches back across time. In 1795 when the university enrolled its first students, Carolina became the first and only public university in America to award degrees in the 18th century. Our history is the history of America and in October we will celebrate 225 years since our founding. Much has changed since that time, when enslaved people built the very grounds we walk today, and when the nation’s views of equality and opportunity excluded most of us. But the spirit that drove the state to open Carolina’s doors with the dual goals of light and liberty has, over time, steadily expanded and today we seek nothing less than to be the leader in creating access, opportunity and equality for all. Welcome to your new home, let’s make your time here special.
And before we go, last thank you’s: a special shout out for our New Student and Family Programs staff and student leaders who worked all summer to prepare for your first year. Just during orientation, they packaged 750,000 meals for you. Thanks to the student members of the Order of the Bell Tower and Tar Heel Beginning Board for greeting you, and thanks to the staff of Carmichael Arena for hosting us. Please remember the summer reading discussion sessions are tomorrow from 10:30 to Noon. If you haven’t heard otherwise, please check-in at your residence hall lobby to be assigned your location. You can be sure the morning will be full of donuts and engaging discussion. Now, Harmonyx, one of our a capella groups here on campus, will lead us in the alma mater. Please stay in place after we finish singing until the platform party and faculty recess and then your RA’s will lead everyone out to Fall Fest together. Have fun!