Cooper, a UNC graduate, talked about being overwhelmed by optimism despite evidence in the world today that should point him in the opposite direction.
"I am a prisoner of hope," he said.
Cooper said it is easy to be discouraged by events such as the shooting in Las Vegas, the destruction caused by hurricanes, dysfunction in Washington, divisive speech and laws that make it difficult for people to have access to basic health care and education beyond high school — but he remains optimistic.
He said so much of his optimism is founded in UNC.
"Throughout our history we — in North Carolina — have believed in the power of public education," Cooper said. "Reverence for education flows through our blood stream. It's not only required in our state constitution; it is in our DNA as North Carolinians. It is a part of who we are."
Public education — and universities in particular — leads us to our callings in life, Cooper said.
"Everyone here must push our state leaders — including the legislature — for increased funding not only here but in all of public education," he said.
Cooper said he believes North Carolina can and should be one of the top 10 educated states by the year 2025.
"We must improve our K-12 public education, get our teacher salaries to at least the national average and graduate more young people from high school," he said. "And we must continue to increase the number of people who attain education past high school."
Cooper said he wishes for respect and understanding of voices that come from different points of view.
"I hope that the passion to find antidotes to poverty, racism, poor health, ignorance and arrogance in our present time overtakes the old ways and symbols of the past that contribute to these problems," he said.
The governor ended his speech by talking about his hopes and dreams for UNC, joking about a good parking space and tickets to games even after his term as governor ends.
Anna Cohen, a first-year history major, said Cooper's speech was empowering.
"It's making me really hopeful for the future," she said.
Cooper said he hopes the University reaches its goal of making college affordable, finds the cure for diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer's disease and has a faculty that reflects the diversity and ambitions of the young people who come to school here.
"I dream of students who are engaged in the world around them and burn to make it better, who help solve problems, who protest and who vote."