Posted on July 20, 2023
So I’m curious about something . . . How many of you worked 20 hours or more per week at any time while you were going to school here? If you did, stand up.
If you have been a family caregiver – raising children, caring for younger siblings, elderly relatives – stand up and join them.
If you have had to commute more than a half hour each direction to attend classes, please stand up and join them.
If English is only your second or third language, stand up and join them. You’ve faced a special challenge in learning all this complex stuff in something other than your native tongue.
If COVID was a major disruption in your life during your time in school, stand up and join them.
If you’ve had to deal with the loss of a loved one while you’ve been in school, stand up and join them.
Everyone else, please stand up and join your classmates!
Please take a good look around at each other! Everyone else, take a good look at these graduates! YOU are what North Carolina really looks like! Ladies and gentlemen, this is not an Ivory Tower. This has NOT been an academic echo chamber! You come from all backgrounds – city and rural, different walks of life, different cultural traditions. And while you’ve been here learning, you’ve faced all the kinds of challenges other people face. And you’ve gotten to this momentous day in spite of all that, and because of all that! Congratulations!! (You can all sit down now – thank you!)
You all have incredible assets that have gotten you here. Supportive families and social structures. And, most of all, incredible hard work and perseverance. With those assets, you are abundantly equipped to go from here and do great things.
However, I’d like to suggest that your greatest asset may be the fact that you’ve all been here together. You’ve gotten to know one another, to be lab partners and work on class presentations with students you perhaps had little in common with before. You’ve gotten to see and hear what life looks like through the eyes of all these different classmates. I’d like to think you’ve gained a sense of empathy here that you might not have gained otherwise.
So as you graduate, I think my biggest wish, and my biggest hope, for you is that you will be compassionate people. . . . that you will continue to see life from other people’s perspectives, and then use that to make a stronger society for everyone. I think most of the ugliness and cruelty we seem to see so much of when we look around is at its core a lack of compassion. There’s a lot of fear and a lot of resentment against “otherness” in people, in whatever form that takes. I’ve seen so many cases where YOU have learned to think and act beyond that. I have a strong hope you will keep doing that as you go from here.
As Biology graduates, you have gained a unique understanding of what “otherness” really is. You have learned the information that population genetics has given us about the genetic nature of human beings. You’ve come to understand that the genetic variants that help make us unique as individuals are largely shared among people the world over. You’ve learned there really are no essential, biological differences between groups of people that are black, white, or brown. Whatever you do with your lives going forward, you’re uniquely equipped to help change entrenched things in society – things that are built on the assumption that people who are different from “us” are somehow less human, less deserving of a voice, of opportunities to succeed.
I hope you’ll remember that compassion is a public virtue, not just a private one. Please stay on top of what’s happening around you in society, in the Legislature, in Congress. I hope you’ll register and then vote if you can, to be sure. But do more . . . get involved in your communities, your schools, and beyond, to help leave them better places than you found them! And that goes for your Alma Mater too. As UNCG alumni, I hope you’ll hold UNCG accountable to keep being a place of quality education for all the real people of North Carolina. In fact, hold her accountable to do a better job of that than what she’s done for you.
I have one other wish and hope for you . . . I wish for you happiness and joy – to find the things and people in your life to celebrate!
This past week, you may have heard the Surgeon General issued a report warning about the negative health impacts of our national epidemic of loneliness. And I know a lot of you – a lot of us – have experienced that in these years of COVID. At the same time, you have all these new social connections you’ve forged in your time at UNCG. I hope you’ll keep some of these connections for a lifetime – and then take the plunge to make new social connections going forward . . . and then enjoy your times with one another. And I hope you’ll recognize the times of joy in life as they happen.
The summer when I first graduated from college with a Forestry degree, I had a job on a forest inventory crew. We went around establishing permanent forest growth measurement plots at random locations throughout the mountains of Southwestern Montana. It was hard work – often hiking many miles in rough terrain and all kinds of weather. But I got to see so much wild and beautiful country that summer, which was hidden from everyone else. In looking back on that summer, I often think that if I’d realized how good a time I was having, I’d have enjoyed myself a lot more! As you go forward from here, I hope you’ll learn to see and celebrate the moments of joy in new things and new people you meet.
And today is one of those moments to celebrate!! Rejoice that you’ve made it here. Give a lot of hugs to one another and your families. Keep those pictures and selfies that you’ll be taking. Print them and put them up on your walls so you’ll see and remember them even when you’re away from your electronic devices!
And whatever you do, wherever you go, wherever you end up . . . I wish you all the best of success and happiness in life. And please stay in touch. I want to hear from you!!