‘Caring hearts and laser-sharp minds’ graduate at Winter Commencement

Students in the robes – blue for undergraduates, black with colored hoods for advanced degrees - waved and smiled at the audience of several thousand who whooped, shouted, pumped their fists, flashed pictures, and waved pompoms and bright flowers.

A rainstorm during the Winter Commencement ceremony on Sunday, Dec. 18, cooled the unseasonably warm (71-degree) afternoon, but nothing dampened the spirits of the Tar Heels in the Smith Center about to receive their degrees – or their friends and families.

“That’s her! That’s her! Way over there!” an excited little girl shouted when she saw her loved one processing onto the basketball floor in her Carolina blue robe. Others in the audience of several thousand whooped, shouted, pumped their fists and waved pompoms and bright flowers. Cameras and smartphones flashed all over the bleachers as friends and families captured the special moments.

The students in the robes – blue for undergraduates, black with colored hoods for advanced degrees – waved back, smiling, some even dancing. A couple of education graduate students brought up the end of the line, far behind the other black robes, perhaps because of the intricate bedazzling they had done on their black mortarboards.

In all, 2,166 members of Carolina’s second class of 2016 were eligible to receive their degrees:  907 undergraduates, 886 masters students, 49 professional students and 324 doctoral students.

“When I look out at you, in your gorgeous Carolina blue, I see the next generation of caring hearts and laser-sharp minds needed for America’s future,” Chancellor Carol L. Folt said during her opening remarks.  “I’m looking out at what may become America’s greatest innovation generation yet. “

Paul Cuadros, associate professor in the school of Media and Journalism, gave the Commencement speech, following in the University’s tradition of having a faculty member address the winter graduates. Cuadros spoke of his own immigrant father and his influence on his life.

“He was an educated man, but here in the U.S. he was forced to push a broom for 30 years,” he said.

When Cuadros told his father he felt empty inside even though he was a successful advertising copywriter, his father encouraged him to use his writing talent for something more fulfilling.

“He took me aside one day and he asked me a simple but penetrating question. ‘Que estas haciendo con tu pluma? What are you doing with your pen?’ That question changed my life. I went from ‘Mad Men’ to ‘Spotlight.’ I became a big-city investigative reporter,” Cuadros said.

Cuadros moved to Siler City from Washington, D.C., in 1999 to write an investigative book about Latino immigrants who provided cheap labor for chicken processing plants in the South. But “I did something I tell my students not to do. I got involved,” he said. “Sometimes you have to break the rules to become the person you are meant to be.”

He began to coach the first soccer team at Jordan-Matthews High School, a team of Latino boys. In three short seasons, the team went on to become state champions. The story of that team became the subject of Cuadros’ book “A Home on the Field,” the only faculty-written book to be selected as the summer reading for an incoming class.

The best player on the team – the first Mexican immigrant to win state soccer’s most valuable player award – was a boy named Indio. Cuadros told the story of how Indio was sidelined by an injury, went to college for two years before dropping out to work in high-rise construction and now owns his own construction company and is hiring some of his former soccer teammates. He’s a legal resident with a green card and an American wife and child.

“Indio’s story is exceptional but not extraordinary. I have met many others just like him,” Cuadros said. “You see, being an American has nothing to do with papers and everything to do with spirit. It’s that beating in your heart for the freedom to be your own person, to control your destiny.”

After the conferring of degrees, Folt returned for some parting words to the new graduates.

“We are in the midst of powerful waves of change and my charge to you is simple,” she said. “Stay curious, stay open to wonder and stay true to your best, most empathetic self.”