Congratulations, UNC Gillings School graduates! You did it, and we are so proud of you! Go out and leave your Tar Heel footprints all over the world as you improve health, the environment and well-being. You will make a positive difference in the world as the students who came before you have done!
Sometimes, I wonder how it is possible to have so much fun leading commencement ceremonies for the School. This year, there were 577 reasons – the number of students receiving Gillings School degrees and certificates — about 330 of them present on Saturday, May 12.
When we first moved our school’s commencement ceremony to Carmichael Arena, I felt nostalgic for the majesty of Memorial Hall and thought of moving the ceremony back. However, doing that would have required issuing tickets to graduates, limiting the number of people each could invite. I was persuaded to keep the ceremony in Carmichael, as many of the groups of family members and friends coming to celebrate our students are quite large.
This year, though, as I looked out on our faculty and staff, graduates and their supporters, I thought Carmichael was the perfect venue. While getting a degree is serious business, it and the celebration of completion also should be exuberant. It is so easy to pass from the end of something to the start of another and not fully experience and savor the moment of the ending. I’ve done that too often in my own life. I want our students, their families and friends to stop and savor, to drink from the Old Well and feel the sweetness of the moment. Making it serious and fun, and encouraging people to express joy, in no way diminishes the gravity of the event. It is fun, and family members come out in force and get involved in cheering their students. We all feel proud. As I always say, public health training is not a solitary affair, and commencement is a community effort.
Our speaker was Dr. Camara Phyllis Jones, a senior fellow at the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and the Cardiovascular Research Institute in the Morehouse School of Medicine and past president of the American Public Health Association (2015–2016).
As noted in her biography on the Urban Institute website:
(Dr.) Jones is a family physician and epidemiologist whose work focuses on naming, measuring and addressing the impacts of racism on health and well-being. She seeks to broaden the national health debate to include the social determinants of health (including poverty) and the social determinants of equity (including racism), alongside universal access to high-quality health care.
(Dr.) Jones’ allegories on race and racism illuminate topics that are otherwise difficult for many Americans to understand or discuss, and she aims to catalyze a national campaign against racism.
Dr. Jones is a riveting and commanding speaker who uses allegories to make her points. For example, in explaining the detrimental effects of racism, she describes a garden with two flowerpots, one well-tended and the other ignored. The well-tended plant gets good nutrients, is watered and thrives. It flourishes.
Like the negligent gardener, institutional racism causes under-investment in most of the things children need to thrive—good education and health care, safe neighborhoods and healthy food. Why would we be surprised when children who grow up in the face of racism don’t do well?
Heat reduced the length of Sunday’s University-wide commencement ceremony. No one complained!
[Photos: (Clockwise from left): Members of the platform party await their cue to process; a group receiving their Bachelor of Science in Public Health degrees enters UNC’s Carmichael Arena; New graduates celebrate with relatives and friends in the School’s Armfield Atrium on the afternoon of May 12; Members of the graduate class of 2018 gather for a group photo; Dr. Camara Jones spoke compellingly about social determinants of health and equity.]