Graduates attend their commencement ceremony.
Public Health, Students

Yes, you can change the world!

May 14, 2019 |2:48 min read

Yes, you can, and those words are not out-of-date!

Dr. Richard Besser gave the commencement address in Carmichael Arena on May 11, 2019. Photo by Mackenzie Herzog.

At the Gillings School’s 79th commencement, Richard Besser, MD, president and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, former acting director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and award-winning former chief health and medical editor for ABC News, exhorted the audience of more than 300 graduating students and hundreds of family members, friends, faculty and staff: “Don’t let anyone tell you that what you want to do isn’t possible.”

“Public health is the best field in the world,” Dr. Besser said. “You want to change the world, and I believe you will.”

New 2019 Gillings alumni are all smiles! Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is the largest private foundation in the U.S. devoted entirely to improving the nation’s health. Dr. Besser gave just the right commencement talk — inspiring, motivating and reflective of what he had learned about the Gillings School, with a touch of humor and a dose of reality-tested advice. (In the video on YouTube, Dr. Besser’s address begins at about 30:18.)

What field could be more interconnected to almost everything that matters than public health? Water, air, food, health care, safety, security, education, equity, fitness, costs of care, prevention, immigration and more. I won’t list everything. Public health is a path to improving the world, and the world will be better when leadership transitions to public health alumni — especially, Gillings alumni.

They don’t think of the world in cynical winners-and-losers metaphors. They see the world as it is — a place of infinite possibilities, waiting for innovation; a place where place of birth, skin color, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion or differing abilities should not deprive people of their potential; a place where opportunity should be a goal for all and where, if we choose to be fairer, millions more people could lead better lives.

Looking out at the graduates and guests from the platform are, from left: Nastacia Pereira, Dr. Richard Besser, Katherine Gora Combs, Dr. Kauline Cipriani and Dr. Peggy Bentley. Photo from @UNCglobal on Twitter.

The run-up to commencement and the event itself are a tonic for the world-weary and disenchanted. To know our students (and others in public health) is to believe in the future and to renew hope that our society and the world will recover from current imbalances and once again thrive.

Congratulations, UNC Gillings alumni! Thank you for having chosen the Gillings School! You are awesome, and we will miss you. Be well, be safe and do good!

This was just one of many shout-outs to moms at a Mother’s Day weekend commencement ceremony. Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.


Katherine Gora Combs, co-president of the Gillings School’s Student Government Association, prepared to join the platform party for the pre-ceremony procession. Photo by Elizabeth French.


Addressing our amazing graduates and faculty and staff members and guests at commencement is a joy and an honor. The Almalgam Brass Quintet has played at our school’s ceremony for years, and they are the best! Photo from @UNCpublichealth on Twitter.

To see more commencement photos, go to our flickr site.

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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.