Higher Ed, North Carolina, Public Health, Students

Finding one’s purpose

May 20, 2019 |3:22 min read

UNC commencement speaker Jonathan Reckford addressed our deepest selves

Jonathan Reckford addressed the class of 2019. Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.

Jonathan Reckford, MBA, CEO of Habitat for Humanity, was UNC-Chapel Hill’s commencement speaker Sunday, May 12. A 1984 UNC alumnus, he shared his personal journey to where he is today.

Like so many other accomplished people, he has had his share of failures, but he found his calling — his true purpose in life — in service. Reckford asked graduates to decide whose voices will influence them: Whose voices will they hear? He urged them to define for themselves what rich means, and he said that, for him, it is not about what you have but who you are as a person.

That’s a lesson I’ve shared with our students, one which often is driven home in eulogies. At funerals, speakers rarely mention what a person owned, but, rather, what kind of person they were. At the incredibly moving memorial service for Paul Godley, MD, PhD, who died March 31, speakers focused on the kind of man he was: there for his family; an advocate for younger faculty, especially those of color, and for his patients; a person who listened and was driven to reduce health inequities.

Reckford urged graduates to learn as much as they can about the world so they can make decisions about what kind of people they will be. The story Reckford told about how he came to believe that his mission was to end poverty could have been a parable about public health. We cannot separate health from having a roof over one’s head, nutritious food, health care, education and a safe environment in which to live. They’re all connected. That’s why public health is so central to what matters most in the world.

Congratulations to our UNC-Chapel Hill graduates!
Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill.

I grew up thinking about service as a way I could find my purpose in life. There are many ways to serve and many ways to embody the kind of service Reckford represents. It’s not easy to find one’s true calling: As Reckford described, it may be more of a process than a single blast of enlightenment. Still, it’s worth taking the time to reflect and figure it out, and doing so should be part of our graduates’  journey as they walk the paths that lead from Carolina to the rest of their lives.

Reckford left the audience with a Franciscan benediction. Whether or not one is religious, it should have meaning. For those of us in public health, it could just as easily be a Benediction for the Public’s Health:

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

The closing is a reminder of what our Gillings School commencement speaker, Richard Besser, MD, urged our graduates — not to let anyone tell them they cannot change the world. Making a difference in the world… That’s public health!

As a member of the platform party (far left, second row, wearing a peach-colored hood for public health), I was struck by the way Jonathan Reckford’s message complemented that of Richard Besser, the Gillings School’s commencement speaker, the previous day.


A Franciscan Benediction

May God bless us with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths and superficial relationships, so that we may live deep within our hearts.

May God bless us with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people, so that we may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless us with tears to shed for those who suffer from pain, rejection, starvation and war, so that we may reach out our hands to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless us with enough foolishness to believe that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can do what others claim cannot be done.

Want to leave a comment or contact us?
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.