Carolina celebrates the Class of 2024 under the lights

The 6,700-plus Tar Heel graduates received words of wisdom from astronaut Zena Cardman ’10, ’14 (MS) at a ceremony presided over by Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts.

Students tossing caps at Commencement at Kenan Stadium
(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Carolina’s Class of 2024 enjoyed a primetime Spring Commencement under the lights.

The newest Tar Heel alumni were treated to a first-of-its-kind Saturday night ceremony at Kenan Stadium (fireworks included) and heard from astronaut Zena Cardman ’10, ’14 (MS), who told them in her keynote speech to make their own definitions of success as they began their next chapters.

“Success is yours to define, and your team is yours to build,” said Cardman, who is set to make her first spaceflight in August. Cardman and her team are headed to the International Space Station for a six-month mission.

But beyond accomplishments that can be listed on a resume, Cardman told the graduating class, “You know your values, what brings you joy, what questions make you curious. You know the people who matter to you.”

Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts presided over the ceremony that honored an estimated 4,265 undergraduates, 1,530 master’s degree candidates and 884 doctoral students. Of the graduates, 775 are first-generation students and 524 are Carolina Covenant Scholars.

“The confidence and certainty from your time here, the relationships you’ve built and the skills you’ve gained have prepared you to enter a world full of uncertainty,” Roberts said.

Wide-angle shot of 2024 Spring Commencement at Kenan Stadium on the campus of UNC-Chapel Hill.

(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

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The graduating Tar Heels were reminded of what they’ve gone through and overcome since their collegiate careers began. In addition to the years of customary hard work — whether it be class readings, group projects, papers, late nights studying or exams — these students began their studies in the midst of a pandemic after many missed out on high school graduations. Yet, they still embraced the moment and excelled at Carolina.

Two students hugging at Commencement.

(Johnny Andrews/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Our college experience has been out of the ordinary,” said Lauryn Lovett, senior class president, noting that Saturday marked the “first actual graduation ceremony” for many of those in caps and gowns. “We are the COVID class. Despite a pandemic and several other hardships throughout our years, we’ve made it.”

Being trailblazers

In a couple of months, Cardman will get into a 200-foot-tall rocket. Within 75 seconds, she will have traversed over 6,000 miles upward and enter orbit in 10 minutes’ time.

But taking the stage Saturday night, Cardman said, “is the most terrifying thing I’ll do this year.”

If she was terrified, Cardman didn’t show it. She came with jokes — “This will be the first time I leave Kenan Stadium without a sunburn” — and offered a timely reminder on the importance of thanking mothers, including her own in the audience.

She offered several pieces of wisdom these graduates can carry with them. Among the most important was a message on choosing goals wisely and morally, a lesson related to her own patient journey as an astronaut. “If your goal requires cutting down someone else to get there, you need a different goal,” Cardman said.

She told her fellow Tar Heels to be trailblazers — and that it’s OK if they don’t know where that trail is leading.

“Just start walking,” she said. “You don’t actually have to know where you’re going if you know who you’re doing it for, and the most transformative journeys don’t actually need to take you very far at all.”

Sharing Carolina

Although Roberts’ time at the University began in January, Carolina’s interim chancellor said he quickly became impressed by many of the students honored Saturday.

His message to this group was one based on the importance of compromise and sharing, especially at a place like Carolina that “doesn’t belong to any one person or group.”

Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts speaking at Spring Commencement at Kenan Stadium.

Interim Chancellor Lee H. Roberts (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

“Being the University of the People is not always easy, especially when the people are not of one mind and they never are. Being the University of the People means that we contain all that is great and all that is troubling about our society,” Roberts said.

As such, he told his audience of new graduates to embrace “shared effort” as they prepare to leave their “Heel print on this world.”

An illuminated celebration

As the night’s ceremony approached its end, a cappella group Clef Hangers performed “Carolina in My Mind,” and graduates were treated to a lightshow during a countdown to their cap and gown toss, which coincided with fireworks.

With that, a new group joined the ranks of Tar Heel alumni and enjoyed a celebration everyone who spoke on Saturday said they deserved.

Students celebrating at Commencement as fireworks go off.

(Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)