Higher Ed, Public Health, Students

Gillings graduates ready to improve the world

May 16, 2017

Amazing students, faculty and staff

IMG_1875I looked out at a sea of students ready to become our graduates – Gillings School alumni – and I felt so fortunate to be part of this wonderful culmination of degrees that is both an end and a beginning – commencement.

Our students are truly awesome and amazing. Even while in school, they create companies, volunteer, win awards, sometimes while raising families – all while undertaking rigorous studies. As they crossed the stage Saturday in recognition of their achievements, I was grateful for those I had come to know and sorry I could not have gotten to know every one of them.

This spring, 516 students graduated (including small numbers for December 2016 and August 2017); nearly 360 of them attended commencement. Each had their own personal story. Some had overcome real adversity in their personal lives to complete their degrees. I was especially proud of them and happy that so many were from countries beyond our borders. Their diversity helps us develop global mindsets and become more sensitive and aware.


I saw faculty members who had played strong roles in students’ development and who had advised, guided, educated, mentored and encouraged them along the way. So many of our faculty members are strongly committed to teaching and mentoring and to their individual students, even as research funds become harder to obtain, and the process increasingly demanding. Our staff are phenomenal, too. Many who attended commencement could have been elsewhere, but they chose to celebrate with graduating students.

A glorious crowd of celebrants – full of joy, pride, collegiality, collaboration and energy (such energy!) – marked the very special moment when we all became one, as our students, in a sense, became part of us, and we shared them with their families. It was a joyous day!

Aaron Williams inspired us with world-expanding views

Commencement speaker Aaron Williams posed with student government co-presidents, Kristen Voltzke (left) and Ranjitha Ananathan (right) before the ceremony began.

Former head of the Peace Corps under President Barack Obama, and now executive vice president for government relations and corporate communications at RTI International, Aaron Williams, MBA, brought a global perspective to the School through his commencement address, which was imbued with messages about leadership and a positive spirit. Williams spoke of three leadership traits – looking upward, looking outward and empowering others.


Mr. Williams greeted each graduate on stage during the conferral of degrees.

“Today, we may live in an age of ‘selfies,’” he said, “but true leadership is about focusing on others. When we devote our attention to others, we reveal the best aspects of ourselves. When we strive for connection…when we offer compassion…we unleash the gifts at our core.”

He said to our students:

At the Gillings School, you’ve learned to do the kind of work that matters most of all – work that that helps the needy, heals the sick and enables people to make the most of their own lives. Keep looking outward, looking upward and empowering others – and the world will be a better place because of YOU.

Today, when so many fabulous young people in the United States are unsure about where we are and what the future holds, Williams’ messages were right on target and truly inspirational.

And then…they were alumni

Mr. Williams posed for a picture in the atrium with Camille McGirt (in cap and gown), Kristen Voltzke, and Camille’s brother and father.

Afterwards, as we stood in our School’s atrium, Aaron Williams was like a human magnet. I’ve never met so many parents and family members. They told us how much they appreciated the Gillings School and the experiences their sons and daughters, nephews, nieces and others had here. They had come from as near as Durham and as far as Nigeria. They were proud, supportive and truly happy. What a spectacular day it was!

Congratulations, Gillings graduates and now, alumni! We wish you well. You’ll always have a home at the Gillings School!



All photos by Linda Kastleman and David Pesci. Go to Flickr to see all of their wonderful photos – before, during, and after the commencement ceremony at Carmichael Arena, and at our reception afterwards (both inside and outside the Gillings School).




Such an amazing journey. More success on your journey graduates!



Am inspired by this post, Great.

Barbara Rimer


Thank you so much! I'm glad you were inspired. i showed some photos today and got re-exhilarated. It is wonderful to see people complete something big and important--with their families and friends supporting them. i agree about the father! Barbara



Great post. It was such a hope-filled day. My favorite moment was watching a father and his two daughters gleefully returning to their seats after crossing the stages. Why? Because there is no greater positive energy we can put out into our troubled world than inspiring girls to education. My hope is that that father walks his daughters across a stage like ours in a decade or so.

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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.