As graduates settled into their seats at UNC’s Class of 2023 Spring Commencement on May 14, a video of a familiar face addressed the crowd.
“Jordan year, huh?" Michael Jordan said in the video. "I like that.”
Nearly 6,500 graduates filled Kenan Stadium to celebrate and hear from this year's commencement speaker, Bryan Stevenson, the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative and renowned public interest lawyer. The Equal Justice Initiative aims to challenge racial and economic injustices across the U.S.
Stevenson, whose accomplishments include arguing and winning the Supreme Court case that banned life sentences without parole for children aged 17 and younger, recounted the importance of the values of truth and justice during his speech.
He said it breaks his heart that Black and brown graduates may deal with racialized presumptions in their futures.
“We need an era of truth and justice, and I think you have to be the prime movers in creating more truth and more justice in our world,” he said.
He said the graduates should retain the energy, spirit, hope and dreams they had before coming to UNC.
“Some of you are going to have to stand up when people say, 'Sit down.' Some of you are going to have to speak when others say, 'Be quiet.' But don't resist the obligation to stay humble,” he said.
Stevenson also received an honorary degree at the commencement ceremony, alongside Lucille Webb, Hilda Solis, Jonathan Reckford, Mike McIntyre and Alexander Julian.
Julian, who owns Julian’s clothing store in downtown Chapel Hill, has a special connection to Commencement and the UNC community — in 2011, he redesigned the Carolina blue robes that have been worn by graduates ever since.
Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz also addressed graduates, congratulating them and telling the story of Evan Padgett, an early graduate of the class of 2023.
Padgett, a biology major from Lowell, N.C., was diagnosed with an aggressive form of lymphoma in October 2020. During his career at UNC, he endured chemotherapy and a stem-cell transplant while still staying on track academically, Guskiewicz said.
Despite these obstacles, Guskiewicz presented Padgett with his diploma at his home in January of this year, surrounded by family and friends. He died the following day.
“The reason Evan wanted that diploma so badly is that it made him forever part of this community, tied in a real and meaningful way to all of you,” Guskiewicz said. “I know what this degree and this accomplishment meant to him.”
He also said Padgett, along with the rest of the class of 2023, experienced hardship due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic forced the class to go home in the middle of their first year and attend the first semester of their sophomore year online.
Isabella Dunn, a graduate, said that even though finding community and camaraderie during the pandemic was difficult, she still found ways to make friends.
“Going into the world as a Carolina graduate, I’m honestly terrified,” she said, “I'll be real, it’s really scary, but, I think that Carolina has prepared me to take on these challenges, and also has the resources to help.”
One of the ceremony's attendees, Cynthia Montgomery, said words can’t express how she feels watching her son, Tyrone, who is a first-generation student college graduate. She said she is grateful for the opportunities the University provided him.
“I always believed in him, and I think now he believes more in himself than anything," she said.
During Guskiewicz’s speech, he challenged members of the class of 2023 to think deeply about what their UNC degree will mean to them individually.
“You are Tar Heels, forever,” he said.
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