New York Times columnist and bestselling author Frank Bruni addressed UNC graduates at the May 8 commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium. Bruni was originally scheduled to speak at the spring 2020 commencement, but the ceremony was postponed due to COVID-19.
A UNC class of 1986 alumnus, Bruni has since served as a columnist, White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief and the chief restaurant critic for The Times.
As he returned to speak to spring graduates, 2022-2023 Managing Editor Allie Kelly sat down with Bruni to talk about his experience at the University.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Daily Tar Heel: What are some of your favorite memories of UNC?
Bruni: I just remember very late nights at The Daily Tar Heel — sometimes midnight, one in the morning — and wonderful conversations with my fellow journalists there. I don't know about now, but then, (DTH) was part newspaper, part its own sort of combined fraternity sorority social club. It definitely felt like a band of people kind of marching through the college years together, as much as it did a journalism enterprise.
I remember just runs through campus and walking through campus, and never losing sight of what an enchanted environment the campus and Chapel Hill seemed. Those aren't discrete individual event memories, but those are some of the things that are always in my mind.
DTH: What is something that you wish you knew when you were in college?
Bruni: Like everything. I wish I had known that almost anything important plays out over time. So to get freaked out about the way the cookie crumbles at a given instant is ridiculous. And to be impatient for a judgment or result is immature because that's just not the way life works. That's one thing I wish I'd known then. I'll leave it there.
DTH: Do you have any advice or thoughts to incoming first-years or current students?
Bruni: College is such an extraordinary chapter of life in terms of what you can get out of it. And a school like UNC has, in its scale and in its caliber — it's a cornucopia of opportunities and lessons and all of that.
You've got four years to kind of harvest the best of a college. And I think most people, the first semester begins, they're sort of borne along by the tide of that, and everything goes by in an exhilarating rush. I bet a lot of people sitting at commencement have a long list of things they meant to do, or would have done if they had kind of been more ordered in their thoughts. So I would say to incoming students — take a moment's pause, survey the entire landscape of possibility and make a kind of college version of a bucket list of things you want to make sure to do, courses you want to make sure to take, professors you want to make sure to interact with before before your four years are over, because they will go by in a flash.
DTH: Are there any like specific kind of college bucket list items that you're really glad that you were a part of?
Bruni: So many years have gone by that it's hard. It's hard to remember. I just remember feeling like I did not put that much intention into my course selection. I never regretted being an English major. And I almost had enough courses to be an American Studies double major. Why was that? Why didn't I take a few more and do that? I wished I'd taken more history courses. I wish I had worked harder than I did at the Italian courses because I think it can be a really gift to be fluent or near-fluent in another language. I don't have that many social items on my bucket list.
But I'm so retroactively aware of what a privilege it is to have those four years dedicated to learning and not to worrying about a mortgage payment or kids or kids' school schedule if you do have kids and all that. I wish I had kind of burrowed deeper into the academic possibilities and grown my brain a little larger than I did.
DTH: What are your favorite parts of being a UNC alum?
Bruni: I don't kind of identify tribally that way. I'm super proud of being a UNC alum, but it's not like I kind of have a lot of banners up in my house or wear Carolina sweatshirts or T-shirts.
I'm proud to have graduated from a state university. I'm proud to have graduated from a public university. I believe in public education. I believe that education access at all levels of education — but very much including college — is super important.
So a school like Carolina that puts enormous value in public access, that cares about being open to all kinds of students in North Carolina and being an engine of opportunity — I'm really proud to be associated with that. That's a way in which I'm really happy to be a Carolina alum.
DTH: Do you have anything else to add?
Bruni: It's a special privilege for me to do the commencement this year because when I was asked in 2020, I had no knowledge that I would be returning to Chapel Hill, living in Chapel Hill. And I hadn't really formulated that plan.
I'm still in my first year as a newcomer, or a returner, to Chapel Hill. There's something, especially delightful, and that I feel especially grateful about getting to near the end of my first year in Chapel Hill, my first year back in what was a former home and what is my new home. It feels like a nice way to mark it to be at that ceremony.
And to be at the University that brought me to Chapel Hill in the first place — there's something sweetly entirely full circle about that.
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