Higher Ed, Students

Celebrating Commencement 2022

May 12, 2022 |6:03 min read

How I learned to love commencements

I’ve led 15 Gillings in-person commencements and been in the platform party for 30 UNC-Chapel Hill commencements (spring and winter), subtracting the virtual commencements necessitated by the pandemic. Wow! (I never added it up!) I’ve never sent a substitute to the latter. That’s a lot of commencements. And I loved every one of the in-person commencements. (Let’s forget the virtual ones! It’s no way to hold a commencement, but we learned.) I loved them even more as I spent more time as dean. This is coming from a person who skipped two out of three of her own commencements.

I love commencements, because they are all about our wonderful students and the people who join to celebrate them. I do not know every student’s story, but I learned many of them. I know how much hard work, struggle, love, anxiety, joy and happiness went into crossing the finish line for our students. I have learned many of their personal sagas, including the losses students endured, their persistence, the mental and physical health struggles they faced during the pandemic, and the joys of their accomplishments. I admire our students and their desire for impact in the world. It has been a privilege to oversee and lead their commencements and to work with our devoted staff, student volunteers and faculty to execute Commencement 2022.

I’m sad that spring 2022 Gillings and UNC-Chapel Hill commencements were my last: the last time I will look out on thousands of excited family and friends cheering their students, the last time I will be there to welcome students as they become graduates, and the last time I will get to confer degrees on these fabulous people who will make the world a better place. I have had the privilege of serving the Gillings School and, most important, our students. I love commencement, because that is where the past and present converge in the joy of completion and a vision for the future.

Gillings Commencement 2022

May 7 was a spectacular day, with more than 430 graduates present to celebrate the completion of their degrees in the presence of about 3,000 guests. Everyone was so glad to be in person. I was moved by remarks about me made by student government co-president, Julia Nevison, MHA. Serena Hutchinson, MPH, did a great job introducing our commencement speaker, Edgar Villanueva, MHA. Villanueva, a two-time Gillings alumnus and enrolled member of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, gave an inspiring speech to the graduates. He recalled his time as a Gillings student and recounted his journey from poverty to the discovery of his personal medicine – in the indigenous tradition, his unique calling to heal himself and society. He encouraged graduates and their guests to find their own medicine by which they will improve the world. Kristin Black, PhD, welcomed students on behalf of the Alumni Association Advisory Board.

The best parts of commencement are always the rollicking moments in which students cross the stage to cheers and claps from guests. I’ve always felt that commencement can be both serious and a lot of fun, and that’s what we try to bring to the event. It’s about the past and future, but we don’t want the present moment to be lost.

Both the program (pdf) and a video recording (YouTube) of the ceremony are available online. Photos from the ceremony and reception by Jennie Saia, MA, associate director of communications – a few of which are featured in this post – are at go.unc.edu/2022GillingsPhotos.

UNC-Chapel Hill Commencement 2022

UNC-Chapel Hill’s commencement on Sunday, May 8, was a wonderful event, although many of us shivered throughout the ceremony. It must have been one of the coldest spring commencements on record, and as I looked out on the students, I noticed that many had been smart enough to bring blankets. I wished I had! Keynote speaker Frank Bruni, a renowned journalist, talked about his own journey from diffident UNC student to transformed adult. Through the experience of losing sight in one eye five years ago, he said he gained vision and perspective. It was a moving chronicle about how one faces the adversity life deals and comes out stronger. It spoke to me since I lost much of the sight in one eye after having a detached retina. One learns to make the best of the hands we are dealt, and, as Bruni said, many have it worse. A video recording (YouTube) of the event is available online; Bruni’s speech begins at ~1:00.

After the ceremony, I walked the several miles to my home, enjoying conversations with colleagues I met along the first part of the road from the stadium. I needed to process what I had heard and the feelings of a bittersweet day that was the end of an era for me, just as it was the beginning of wonderful journeys for our new graduates.

My Advice to Graduates

I’ve developed some tips for graduates that I leave them with at the end of the Gillings commencement ceremony. I share them here.

You’ll get lots of advice, and I can’t resist giving you my top 15.

  1. Focus where you’ll have the greatest impact–on the big drivers of equity, health, illness, life, death, quality of life and costs.
  2. Be bold, courageous and aim for excellence in everything you do. Dare to be uncomfortable, take smart risks, make mistakes. We all make them! Apologize and learn from your mistakes.
  3. Stand for diversity, inclusion and equity in your actions and your advocacy. Continue to speak up and stand up – as you have done here – for causes you believe in.
  4. Career success rarely happens in a linear way. You can’t plan it all out, and you don’t want to. Luck happens. Take advantage of it, but don’t depend on it.
  5. Find mentors who will support you. Mentor others, including Gillings students.
  6. Your good name, excellence, integrity, values and reputation are your personal brands. Protect them. At the end of the day, what people will remember are your relationships with others, the quality of your character, the people you touch and your impact in the world.
  7. Don’t lose your compassion but turn your compassion into action.
  8. Be good to your families, however you define them.
  9. Respect everyone.
  10. Listen deeply to people with your minds and hearts. Then, you will hear.
  11. Give back to your communities and to places and causes you support. As we sit in safety today, remember that there are many places in this country and around the world where safety is denied.
  12. Live a life in full, your life. Don’t put off living until you have made it. Making it is a process, not a destination.
  13. Make time. Time is one of the most precious resources we have. Use it wisely. It is
  14. Practice good health habits. You know what they are. That includes getting and giving social support, and, if you’re fortunate, love. I wish love for you all.
  15. Finally, persevere is advice from Ted Kennedy, who had a lifelong passion to improve healthcare for all Americans. He said his greatest lesson-learned is: “If you stick with it, work at it, persevere, you have a real opportunity to achieve something. You might not reach your goal right away. But if you do your best and keep a true compass, persevere, you’ll get there.”

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The views expressed in this blog are Barbara Rimer’s alone and do not represent the views and policies of The University of North Carolina or the Gillings School.