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The Daily Tar Heel

"There are efforts to divide us:" Meet UNC's 2018 spring commencement speaker

Rye Barcott.jpg

Rye Barcott.

Correction: In an earlier version of this article, Tabitha Festo's name was incorrectly spelled and misquoted Barcott. The story has been updated with the changes and The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error. 

Rye Barcott is the 2018 UNC Spring Commencement Speaker. After graduating from UNC in 2001 on an ROTC scholarship and earning a bachelor’s in peace, war and defense and international studies, Barcott served in the United States Marine Corps. Throughout his service, he volunteered for Carolina for Kibera, a nongovernmental organization that Barcott co-founded in his senior year at UNC. CFK works in the Kibera slum of Nariobi, Kenya, to alleviate poverty and develop local leaders.

After earning his master’s degrees in public administration and business administration from Harvard University in 2009, Barcott published a book for students in 2011. In the past year, Barcott also co-founded With Honor, a political organization seeking to form coalitions across party lines with post-9/11 veterans. Barcott lives in Charlotte with his wife and two children. 

The Daily Tar Heel: What was your time at Carolina like? 

RB: I had a phenomenal time at Carolina. I was in the Class of 2001, on an ROTC scholarship and, maybe most importantly, I met my wife at Carolina in a class taught by Professor Niklaus Steiner. That was definitely another highlight of my time at Carolina. 

DTH: What was it like studying peace, war and defense and international studies? 

RB: I had the good fortune of having two tremendous mentors in each curriculum who taught me a lot about life, and frankly, about service. They were professor of peace, war and defense Richard Kohn, who had formerly been chief historian of the U.S. Air Force, and then Dr. Jim Peacock, and Jim was in the anthropology department. One of the most powerful quotes that I’ve learned and tried to apply to different parts of service is a quote from Jim Peacock: “Talent is universal, but opportunity is not." And what that means for me is that there are powerful ways that we as individuals can help talented people to new opportunities and that have a catalytic effect.

DTH: What advice do you have for students at Carolina studying peace, war and defense and international studies right now? 

RB: It’s a unique time in the world, and it’s a unique time as a college student. It’s worthwhile to keep in mind that a college degree puts you into the global elite, even though you might not feel that way on campus where we study hard and work late hours. But it’s worth noting that only about 5 percent of the world population has the privilege, and it is a privilege to have a college education like Carolina. 

I think a theme thinking about for the address is to take risks in the service of others. Life’s daunting, and we all have different views on risks, but it’s actually an incredible time as a student and right when you graduate, to take risks and especially if you put it through the filter of risks that will serve others and make a greater impact. I think that is something that one can add a lot of value to the world, but also is very self-fulfilling. It’s often not a purely selfless act, it’s a way to benefit and to grow personally and as a better person. 

DTH: So you established Carolina for Kibera while you were here at Chapel Hill, is that correct? 

RB: That’s right.

DTH: And how did that work? 

RB: I had a Burch Fellowship, which is a unique fellowship that UNC offers to give resources to travel abroad, and then I had a couple great mentors, one of the ones that I mentioned, Jim Peacock, who helped me, basically, think through what was initially a study on ethnic violence and conflict in the world. I knew I was going into the Marine Corps as an ROTC midshipmen, but also taught me the value of actually living in other people’s shoes. I got this Burch Fellowship and went over initially to do a research project, and found that I met some incredibly talented people who didn’t have a lot of opportunity. It’s a large informal settlement where the average income at the time was under a dollar a day.

In such conditions and in such places there are really talented people, and I was fortunate to meet two of them that became co-founders for Carolina for Kibera, two Kenyans from the community. One of whom was a nurse named Tabitha Festo, and one of the starters of the organization was that she took a small grant for as little $26, and used that to initially sell vegetables and then pursue her own dream, which was as a nurse to start a small medical clinic. Today, that clinic treats over 30,000 people a year in this informal settlement and as a program of UNC-Chapel Hill. 

DTH: Do you still volunteer for Carolina for Kibera? What is your current relationship with them? 

RB: I do still volunteer with Carolina for Kibera. I’m on the board. My day job now is with a new organization I started about a year ago, With Honor. That’s an organization that’s focused on building a cross-partisan coalition of veterans who served after Sept. 11, who take a pledge based on values, like civility, courage and integrity and can help fix our Congress. 

DTH: Why did you decide to go back to school? I saw you went to Harvard for a master's degree in public administration and business administration. 

RB: I was at a transition point from a career perspective, I had served five years in the Marine Corps, very interested in how our sectors can be combined to make a greater impact in the world. Specifically, public service with nonprofit activity and for-profit private enterprise. The Kennedy School and Harvard Business School are fantastic places to learn a new set of skills and really look for the intersection point between sectors. 

DTH: Are you nervous for your commencement speech? 

RB: (Laughing) I’m sure I will be, but right now I’m really pumped up about it. I’m going to have both of my kids who are four and seven, and I’m going to bring them, and we’re actually going to have a Carolina for Kibera board meeting that weekend as well, so we’ll be having some members from Kenya flying in, which is going to be awesome. And then I’ve got some of our team from With Honor as well who will join us, so I’m really excited about that. 

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DTH: I know you already mentioned that part of your speech might be about risks, but can you give us other insight or preview of what you’re going to talk about? 

RB: I’m really thinking about the theme about dividing lines, and how what unites us is in the end more powerful than what divides us. I actually met my wife in a class at UNC on nationalism in 2001, and that was right after the conflict in Bosnia. What we’re seeing now around the world is sweeping tides of nationalism and people are looking for deeper meaning. There are efforts to divide us, and at the end of the day, we live in a world that is going to be more and more integrated. 

Basically, we have a lot of dividing forces within the world, but the larger trend in history and the time in which we live in is a trend of integration, is a trend of tolerance, and the forces that unite us are stronger than those who divide us. We can find really powerful ways and with what powerful roles in bringing together groups that seem to have little in common, but actually have underlying values that are really critical to healing wounds and making the world a better place. I’m seeing that firsthand right now with my work in With Honor to bring together a group of younger veterans that are working across party lines and what happens in one of the most polarized and divided times politically in American history during our lifetime.