Amazing people at University Day events
I love it when my days are filled with uplifting people, inspiring messages and moving stories. October 11 was one of those days. It was a beautiful, crisp, fall Carolina day, and I did not want to be anywhere else in the world.
Every year, we celebrate the birthday of UNC-Chapel Hill, when the cornerstone was laid in Old East—a plaque that now hangs in Memorial Hall. We began the day with a breakfast to celebrate recipients of the University’s prestigious Distinguished Alumni and Edward Kidder Graham awards. The Gillings School was honored to have awardees in both categories. Later, at the University Day ceremony, alumna Paula Brown Stafford and faculty member Dr. Eugenia Eng sat on the dais and received their awards in front of a packed audience at Memorial Hall.
Paula Brown Stafford
Paula Brown Stafford, BSPH, MPH, a two-time graduate of the School’s biostatistics department, worked her way up at Quintiles from student intern to president of clinical development. She was part of the executive team that played a major leadership role in getting to market the 100 top-selling drugs in 2013.
Keenly aware of the barriers women face, having been the first woman on Quintiles’ executive floor, Paula did a huge amount to develop and mentor women in the biopharmaceutical services industry. She also was a superb president of our Public Health Foundation board, and she and her husband, Greg, are generous supporters of the Gillings School.
As I said in my introductory remarks at breakfast, Paula is a woman of personal integrity, drive and grace under pressure. Her lovely mother, Barbara, and Greg joined her and were justifiably proud. We are proud!
Geni Eng, DrPH, professor of health behavior at Gillings, received the Edward Kidder Graham Award for public service. Jo Anne Earp, ScD, former chair of health behavior, recounted Geni’s many accomplishments and her more than 30 years of building collaborations with communities across North Carolina and beyond.
When Geni spoke, she described being the daughter of immigrants from China who had a farm in Florida. Her grandmother’s feet were bound until coming to the United States. She talked movingly of listening to community members, hearing them and working with them on several important health topics, including breast cancer.
At a time in this country when we could use more listening to others – and collaborating and partnering to find solutions – Geni Eng is an exemplar for listening, partnering and collaborating. She has been committed from the beginning of her career to eliminating health inequities, and her work is a remarkable chronicle of that commitment. I am so grateful that she is a member of our faculty.
Powerful keynote by Steve Farmer
Steve Farmer, UNC’s vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions, gave the University Day address. It was the most powerful one I’ve heard in 10 years of attending this event.
“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,” Farmer said.
The five courageous students to whom Farmer referred were “firsts” at Carolina: first woman to graduate (Sallie Walker Stockard, in 1898); first American Indian student to be admitted (Henry Owl, who earned a master’s degree in 1929); first black undergraduates to integrate the University under court order in 1955 (John L. Brandon, Leroy B. Frasier and Ralph K. Frasier). Farmer noted that none of the three black students completed a degree here, presumably because it was such a difficult time to be a minority student in Chapel Hill. They all went on to earn undergraduate and graduate or professional degrees elsewhere.
Farmer talked about how long it took to break each barrier and emphasized that it took far too long for each new group to be allowed to walk across the stage to receive their diplomas, even after they’d been admitted and completed their degrees.
Past students and University leaders, through their efforts and sacrifices, “made the rough way smoother for all who followed. In doing so, they helped us come another step closer to our ideal and our identity as a public institution,” Farmer said. “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.”
Farmer spoke of Carolina as a bold, brilliant idea, a public institution that belongs to the many, and not only the few. This is the Carolina that I love – it is the university of the people, the university for the people, the university that must give back to the people. He cautioned that our history is rich and complex, and it is a history that must continue to develop through change.
His most powerful line, repeated throughout, was: “It’s not where we started. It’s the miles we have traveled.”
I felt so proud to be in the audience, privileged to hear this man who captured the hearts and minds of every single person there, as far as I could tell. I, for one, was moved to tears.
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. I’m proud that two of our alumni, Genevieve Lowery Cole, MPH, and William Darity, PhD, were among those recognized. More about that in another post.