After a senior year like no other, graduating Tar Heels experienced a Spring Commencement like no other.
Over the weekend, Carolina celebrated the graduation of nearly 6,300 students in five separate, sun-splashed Carolina Blue ceremonies in Kenan Stadium and virtually, where graduates received advice for post-college life from Drs. Anthony Fauci and Kizzmekia Corbett, two of the leading experts on COVID-19 pandemic research and national response strategies.
Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz presided over the ceremonies, which marked the graduation of 4,068 undergraduates, 1,588 graduate students and 627 professional students.
“You, the Class of 2021, have accomplished something really hard,” said Guskiewicz. “Along with your faculty, your families and your friends, we are lucky to have been on this journey with you. We celebrate what you’ve accomplished, and we’re excited for your future.”
The celebration, Guskiewicz said, recognized how Tar Heels had overcome obstacles and challenges to earn their college degree.
“The ways you’ve had to endure and fight through this pandemic will pay dividends someday. You have adapted, and the lessons of this year are important and worth celebrating,” he said. “You will face other challenges in your life … I hope you will look back on 2020 and think about how you’ve persevered, how you’ve helped others amid the struggles and the obstacles you have faced.”
The unprecedented three-day celebration adhered to COVID-19 protocols by limiting the number of graduates at each ceremony and spreading attendees throughout Kenan Stadium.
Fauci and Corbett ’14 (Ph.D.) delivered their respective Commencement addresses virtually to the Class of 2021, praising the students for their resiliency.
Both remarked on the difficulty of the past year and noted how those challenges had shaped graduates. “What you have experienced as a result of the profound upending of your lives by COVID-19 is truly unprecedented,” said Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
He noted that the Tar Heels had risen to the occasion. “How you have responded to this pandemic thus far gives me confidence that you will adjust and you will thrive,” Fauci said.
Although much remains uncertain about a post-pandemic world, Fauci encouraged graduates to take the leadership skills they’d developed at Carolina and address the larger needs of the world. “You are going to play an important role in shaping this new normal,” he said. “Perhaps it can even be a better normal.”
Part of that leadership, he said, includes public service — the cornerstone of Carolina’s mission. Fauci urged the Class of 2021 to find ways to serve their communities no matter their career path. “Make it part of your lives,” he said.
Fauci admitted that much of his speech concentrated on the hardships of the last year, but he closed by encouraging the graduates to focus on the joys still to come. Outside of professional accomplishments, he told the graduates, “Find your own source of joy and happiness, and fully embrace it and let the sounds of your laughter be heard.”
Corbett, who graduated from Carolina with her Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology in 2014 and now works as a research fellow and scientific lead for the Coronaviruses Vaccines and Immunopathologies Team at NIH, began her Commencement address with a rousing Tar Heels chant.
She went on to focus on the importance of home, a word she said that “most certainly takes on a different meaning after the past year.”
Corbett talked about Thanksgiving in 2019, when she visited her family in Hillsborough, North Carolina, and shared with those gathered at her grandmother’s house that she was “consistently thankful” to have a place to call home. No matter where graduates’ paths take them, she reminded them of the power of home.
But as she impressed upon the students, “Home just isn’t about the place you were raised. Home is … the culmination of places that amass experiences that shape who you are, that shape who you will be. Home is Carolina.”
Corbett also shared her hope for graduating Tar Heels. “The beautiful thing about this moment, as you leave this place, a place that has shaped you for the past four years, is that you now have the privilege to decide where you go from here,” she said. “It’s the time when you are becoming who you are destined to be, the time when you are finding your why, a time when you are figuring out your place in this world and where do you belong.”
She closed, saying, “Remember that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. You are going exactly where you are destined to go.”
While last year’s Spring Commencement was canceled due to COVID-19, the Class of 2020 will be honored with a weekend-long celebration in October. Learn more about the Class of 2020 celebrations at commencement.unc.edu.