CHAPEL HILL — A crowd of 33,000 gathered at Kenan Stadium on Sunday for UNC-Chapel Hill’s traditional Mother’s Day spring commencement, enjoying (and fanning) themselves under sunny skies.
By the numbers: 5,991 students graduated Sunday, including 3,730 earning bachelor’s, 1,423 receiving master’s and 217 awarded with doctoral degrees. There also were 621 who earned professional degrees, which are those conferred by the schools of dentistry, law, medicine, nursing and pharmacy.
Commencement address: Health care renaissance man Atul Gawande – who is a surgeon, author and staff writer for The New Yorker magazine – was the main speaker. It was probably the first time – and UNC’s initial graduation was in 1798 — that the main commencement speech compared college students to child cancer patients.
“That’s what happens when you put a doctor between you and your diploma,” Gawande quipped.
He described how a study had shown that children being treated for cancer had social and emotional qualities of life as good as or better than those of their healthy peers.
The reason was they had a support network – parents, doctors, nurses, relatives and other children with the same problems.
He used the metaphor to articulate with his trademark clarity why the feelings of purpose and connection often make the college years the best of someone’s life, and how to take that lesson and use it to flourish after graduation.
The only way life is not meaningless is to become part of of something greater: “a family; a community; a society,” he said.
From a practical standpoint, that often meant finding a physical place that suits who you are, links you to others and gives you something worth making sacrifices for. For him, it was a hospital.
“It’s so much simpler and less messy to hold ourselves back and stay removed in our own private realm,” he said. “The trouble is, you will wake up one day asking yourself while it’s so unfulfilling to simply exist. You can’t flourish without larger purpose. And that’s lucky in a way because our society cannot flourish without your reaching for a larger purpose, either.”
In the air: It was the first Tar Heel graduation for Chancellor Carol L. Folt, and she was nothing short of ebullient. She compared the blossoming of sky-blue graduation gowns with the flowers of spring and declaring, to a wave of approving laughter from the graduates at the use of the phrase, that they were “the secret sauce” that keeps UNC fresh and looking forward.
In her remarks, Folt tied the new wave of graduates to the history of their university, including the first woman to graduate, Sallie Walker Stockard, in 1898, and the first African-American graduate, Harvey E. Beech, in 1952.
She didn’t mentioned that, as the school’s first female chancellor, she is now a notable part of the university’s history.
Best signage moment: As signs popped up in fits and starts among the Carolina blue-clad seniors to spell out “Class of 1964 thanks for leading the way,” in another section, amidst several signs thanking moms, two others went up side by side: “We love you too” and “Dad.”
Members of the Class of ’64 were in town for their 50th class reunion.
New traditions: At this commencement, UNC-CH began giving grads who had served in the military special red, white and blue honor cords to wear during the ceremony. This year, about 30 veteran-graduates got to wear the cords, according to school officials. Also, Folt started a new ceremony in which she symbolically hand signed diplomas. For her commencement, she signed those of three Carolina Firsts. Carolina Firsts are students who are the first in their families to attend college. Six hundred and seventy-one of them graduated Sunday.
Great moment: Half an hour after the ceremony, newly-minted grad and Chapel Hill native Caitie Safrit, 21, was still lingering in front of the stadium, not ready to go. She climbed – in her graduation gown, four-inch heels and sunglasses with heart-shaped Carolina blue lenses, clutching her mortar board – onto the the four-foot stone platform beneath the statue of the school’s mascot. There she posed, holding onto Ramses’ raised foreleg for balance, as her dad, Hal, snapped a photo.
After she climbed down, Safrit, a communications major, said she’s not precisely sure where the future will take her. She’s looking around locally for a public relations job, maybe something similar to her internship a year ago in marketing.
But why the sheep pic?
“He serves as a unifying entity for our community,” she said.
Rescue me!: One graduate, perhaps not so thrilled about entering the real world, wore a classic round life preserver during the ceremony. Elsewhere in the stands, someone whose Twitter handle is @carterhering tweeted “Sitting at the UNC-CH graduation while listening to an endless loop of James Taylor. #help.”
As the ceremony ended, UNC’s oldest a cappella group, the Clef Hangers, took the microphone and the stadium filled with a loud and particularly heartfelt rendition of “Carolina In My Mind.”
Best of the mandatory Duke digs, rated by laughter: During the senior class president’s remarks about what the class had lived through: “ … We watched Duke chicken out because of a couple of snow flakes. …”
The reference was to a basketball game between the bitter rivals this past season that was canceled because of snow, despite the short travel distance from Durham.
Gown factoid: That thing is blue, but it’s also green. UNC-CH’s bachelor’s gown is made entirely from recycled plastic bottles, about 23 bottles per gown, and is made at mills in the Carolinas.