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A legacy on which to build

University Day marks the 1793 laying of the cornerstone of Old East — the nation’s first state university building and the beginning of public higher education in the United States — but it's the generations of students who make Carolina what it is today.

The laying of Old East’s cornerstone 223 years ago marked the founding of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the reason University Day is celebrated each year.

But it’s the generations of students that followed who have made Carolina what it is today.

Students like Sallie Walker Stockard, who became the first woman to graduate from Carolina in 1898; and Henry Owl, the first American Indian to study at Carolina in the 1920s; an John L. Brandon, Ralph K. Frasier and LeRoy B. Frasier Jr., who together paved the way for black undergraduates in 1955.

“It’s right this morning that we remember not only those who laid the cornerstone of Old East, and not only our first student, but these five courageous students who followed — and the many others who have worked hard over the last two centuries to move us forward,” said Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions who served as the keynote speaker of this year’s University Day.

As the community gathered to honor its 223rd birthday at the annual University Day ceremony on Oct. 11 at Memorial Hall, Carolina not only reflected on its founding more than two centuries ago but also the generations of students who followed and have continued to shape the nation’s first public university.

“Today we honor both the founders and the generations of rising leaders who pushed the boundaries each in their own times,” said Chancellor Carol. L. Folt.

Held a day early this year in observance of Yom Kippur, University Day marks the 1793 laying of the cornerstone of Old East — the nation’s first state university building and the beginning of public higher education in the United States.

The annual celebration, Folt said, is an opportunity to reflect on the University’s past while also keeping an eye on the future and celebrating the present.

Participating in her first University Day since becoming president of the UNC System, Margaret Spellings said that in order to laud Carolina’s present and current achievements we must also honor the generations the came before.

“As we gather to celebrate UNC-Chapel Hill’s vast and ever-growing list of achievements, we must never forget those successes wouldn’t have happened without past efforts, past sacrifices and very sizable investments by generations that came before us,” Spellings said.

Farmer’s speech reflected on those past efforts made by both University leaders and students. It was the previous generations’ sacrifices, he said, that has kept Carolina moving ever closer to its founding ideals.

“They made the rough way smoother for all who followed,” Farmer said. “In doing so, they helped us come another step closer to our ideal and our identity as a public institution. For this is a place that believes that none of us should be limited by an accident of birth; that all of us should be free to go as far as our minds and hearts and our own hard work can carry us; that when any of us finds a way to reach high, the rest rise up too.”

After his speech, Farmer and Folt announced the renaming of many need-based undergraduate and graduate grants and fellowships to pay tribute to 21 members of the Carolina community who represent important “firsts” in the University’s history.

The “firsts” include Stockard; Brandon, Ralph K. Frasier and LeRoy B. Frasier, Jr., Owl; Hortense McClinton, the first black professor hired at Carolina; and Irene Dillard Elliott and Anna Forbes Liddell, the first women to earn doctorate degrees at Carolina.

“These people honor our University with their contributions,” Folt said. “We believe that scholarships bearing their names also will motivate deserving students entering each year to succeed in their own personal journeys at Carolina.”

As the University paid tribute to the efforts of past individuals, Folt and Farmer both noted that more must be done to reach Carolina’s ultimate vision of creating an inclusive environment, providing the highest quality education at an affordable price and serving as a powerhouse of research and innovation.

“We have work to do to reach our full potential,” Folt said. “But we also have a fantastic 223-year legacy upon which we will build. That’s what it has and will continue to mean to be Tar Heel.”

Click here for a replay of the University Day ceremony on livestream.