Elders, the first black and second female surgeon general, who served in the position from 1993-94, delivered the keynote address for UNC's Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Week.
"You have a lot of things that have got to be accomplished," Elders told the nearly full auditorium. "You're here to build bridges over rivers of ignorance."
Elders said today's students have a responsibility to address social problems such as racism, sexism and classism.
"You're here to learn how to deal with these 'isms' and get rid of them," she said.
Elders referred to King several times during her speech, praising his hard work and accomplishments. "Our task is to revitalize and keep alive the spirit of his memory and to realize what that was about," she said. "Sometimes when you're trying to be a leader, you have to stand alone."
Elders, who resigned in December 1994 amid controversy over a remark she made about masturbation and sexual education, said people often ask her why she didn't keep her mouth shut to keep her job.
But Elders said she feels it is necessary not to remain silent about important issues. "We have to keep speaking out about the injustices as we see them," she said. "You have to say, 'This is what I believe in.'"
Elders said one of the most important social problems that requires advocacy is health care. "We don't have a health care system in our country, we have a sick-care system," she said. "We brag about the fact that every criminal has a right to a lawyer, and we don't care that every sick baby doesn't have a right to a doctor."
But Elders said students could solve problems like those involving national health care by getting involved and working together to form networks. "You get the degree so you can do something," she said. "You have a huge responsibility."