Winter Graduates Celebrate Overcoming Adversity

Masks were just as much a part of Winter Commencement attire as gowns and mortarboards for UNC’s latest graduates, who spent much of their academic careers navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. (UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98)

UNC’s Winter Commencement on Dec. 12 was an opportunity for more than 1,300 graduates to celebrate all they had achieved at Carolina despite the tremendous obstacles they had faced as students.

Like previous generations of Tar Heels, the students — filling the floor of the Dean Smith Center and dressed in Carolina blue caps and gowns — had spent years at UNC broadening their knowledge and gaining expertise to become leaders in their fields and communities. But this group had spent their last four semesters in a pandemic, with the restrictions, remote classes and other measures needed to navigate it safely.

“All of us faculty, members of leadership and, most importantly, your families and friends are so proud of all that you have accomplished in the face of this incredible adversity,” said keynote speaker Frank Leibfarth, an assistant chemistry professor at UNC. “Stop and think of just how much you’ve overcome in the last few years and think about the traits within yourself that allowed you to do that. You take that with you going out into the world. You are all adaptable. You are all resilient. You are all inspiring.”

Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz gives a graduate an elbow bump, a safe greeting that became common during the pandemic. (UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98l)

Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz presided over the celebration recognizing 664 undergraduates, 672 graduate students and five professional students. Guskiewicz said he was proud of how these Tar Heels had responded to the uncertainty of the last 21 months. Adaptability and determination, he said, may be the greatest lesson they had learned at Carolina and will serve them well as they enter the next chapter of their lives.

“The flipside of uncertainty is opportunity,” Guskiewicz said. “When it’s not clear what direction the road is heading or what the outcome will be, that’s when you have an opportunity to forge your own path. As you begin your careers, you’re entering a world of new possibilities, new opportunities that didn’t exist before. When you’re at the peak of your careers, you’ll be doing things that we can’t even imagine yet.”

General Alumni Association Chair Dana Simpson ’96 (’00 JD) also made the connection between the newest alumni’s first steps and the ongoing connection and support they could count on from Carolina and their fellow Tar Heels.

“You were a Carolina student for a few short years, but you’ll be a Carolina alumnus forever,” Simpson said. “Homecoming football games will take on a different meaning as you come back to connect with classmates and share your Carolina stories with your future family members. The GAA will help you take Carolina with you wherever you call home.”

Winter Commencement keynote speaker Frank Leibfarth, an assistant professor of chemistry, told the graduates to keep their spark alive “no matter what the world throws at you.” (UNC/Jon Gardiner ’98)

Leibfarth reflected on his own career and life path in providing advice to the graduates.

Since joining the chemistry department in 2016, he has earned wide acclaim for his innovative research in polymer and materials chemistry, and his approach to teaching and mentoring. His research earned Leibfarth a spot in Popular Science magazine’s 2021 Brilliant 10 roster, which recognizes early-career scientists and engineers nationwide who have the potential to transform the world with their innovative approaches to critical issues.

Leibfarth shared three key tenets he follows: Learn something really well; don’t be afraid of failure; and stay curious. He also urged the graduates to embrace the privilege they’ve been granted as UNC graduates and combine it with those tenets to keep their spark alive “no matter what the world throws at you.”

“Remember this feeling you had on this day. Remember you can make a difference,” Leibfarth said. “Remember you have the privilege, after graduating from this great university, to lead a career that is both personally fulfilling and makes a measurable difference on the world around you.”

More: photos and video.

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