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Get to know Bill Ferris, UNC's winter commencement speaker

Bill Ferris

Bill Ferris, a Grammy winner and retired UNC professor, will speak at the 2019 Winter Commencement. Photo by Marcie Cohen Ferris. 

Retired UNC professor and Grammy winner Bill Ferris will be this year's winter commencement speaker. Ferris is known at UNC and beyond for his work documenting the American South and commitment to life-long learning.

Ferris' “Voices of Mississippi: Artists and Musicians Documented by William Ferris,” a multimedia collection including blues and gospel music, won Best Historical Album and Best Album Notes at the Grammy Awards in February. 

“Chancellor Guskiewicz called me and asked if I would be a commencement speaker and I told him I would be deeply honored,” Ferris said. “I was overwhelmed and honored.”

Ferris and his wife came to UNC from Washington, D.C. in 2002. He became senior associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South and an adjunct professor in the folklore curriculum in the history department. Ferris has written 10 books and now co-edits the “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture.”

Ferris’ research focused on musicians, writers, photographers and quilt makers in the American South, especially Mississippi, where he grew up. His recordings and archives are now housed in the Southern Folklife Collection in Wilson Library. 

Ferris said he hopes to use his commencement speech to help students think of education as a lifelong process, and to encourage students to think of every person they meet as a potential teacher. 

“I’m going to talk about teaching, and how Carolina allowed me to think about the nature of education as being broader than the academic world, and to reflect on teachers with whom I worked who were blues singers and quilt makers who taught outside of the academic world, but brought knowledge and wisdom into my life and into the lives of my students,” Ferris said. 

Malinda Maynor Lowery, director at the Center for the Study of the American South, has worked with Ferris since 2013.

“Undergraduates will resonate deeply with the way he is a lifelong learner, how he continues to listen and never assumes that he knows all the answers, and his abiding humility alongside his dedication to reminding us all of the stories that bind us together,” said Lowery. 

She said Ferris is a remarkable teacher and mentor, and that he is internationally known for elevating his colleagues’ and students’ work. 

Senior Drew Heatwole will graduate in December. She said she hopes Ferris’ speech will focus on students’ futures.

“It is essential for a commencement speaker to communicate the various and endless ways Carolina has prepared each and every one of us for the future,” Heatwole said. 

She hopes the commencement speech emphasizes how UNC graduates can change the world around them, she said.

UNC’s Winter Commencement ceremony will be Dec. 15 at the Smith Center at 2 p.m.

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