Winter Commencement Address
Valerie Ashby, Gordon and Bowman Gray Distinguished Term Professor of chemistry
The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Dean E. Smith Center
Sunday, Dec. 14, 2008
Service is response to privilege of education
To the graduates, parents, families, friends and distinguished guests:
For those of you out there in that beautiful Carolina blue who have been my students, I am sure that you are wondering, how can she possibly talk without chalk and a board and stop before one hour and 15 minutes. But I am sure you’ll be happy to know that I will not be talking about chemical reactions, as much as I love the topic, nor will I be giving my usual hour-long lecture.
As I stand here, and I think of all that you have accomplished to reach this point, I consider it a great honor and a true privilege for me to speak to you on this special day.
I have had the experience of being a graduate of UNC twice the first of which was 20 years ago. When asked which one was more memorable, I knew that answer. It was Mother’s Day 1994, when I received my Ph.D. in Kenan Stadium.
After my name was called, I heard polite applause … and as I was leaving the stage, I looked up, and to my surprise, there she was, my mother. She was the only person on the football field not wearing a robe. Ah, I can tell there are some mothers in the crowd. With a determined gait, she passed security, barriers, and rope. I don’t know what she told them, but she was coming across midfield, in Kenan Stadium, to congratulate me. And so I appreciate and understand the joy and pride that your families and friends feel today, and I would like to take this moment for all of us to acknowledge and congratulate them.
So, I’ll begin today by saying to the graduates that you have received an awesome gift. When we reflect for a moment on just a few of the circumstances in which people find themselves all over this world, we stop and ask ourselves, how is it that we have the opportunity to spend our days and our nights struggling with concepts, ideas and theories and producing music and performances? How is it that we are able to create knowledge and explore new territories in thinking without the cost being too great to bear? Where is that place that is so privileged?
It is right here. As I told my students one morning, “you don’t actually have to go to a remote corner in the world to see that we are indeed privileged.” And yet, it’s so easy to lose sight of this. But just walk to the edge of Franklin Street, and you’ll see newly homeless families, or consider the children in our community and across this country who do not have access to an excellent education, and if they had the access, would not have the support to make a UNC experience a reality. And it becomes really clear that wearing this Carolina blue robe today – this is a gift.
What I appreciate and love about students at this University is that you get it. You get that when we receive a gift like this, as Chairman Perry said earlier, the response is SERVICE – service to each other, service to our families, service to the community, the nation and the world.
Now, before we go off to save the world, allow me to share a few thoughts that I have gathered from wise people over the years regarding effective service. The first is just a bit of a reality check. And that is…
Enthusiasm is no substitute for preparation.
And this is why the achievements marked by the receipt of your degrees today are so significant and so commendable.
Now I know that you may have thought that some of your professors received some type of peculiar pleasure from seeing you being pushed to your intellectual limits. I remember laughing one afternoon as I sat in my office and heard students talking as they passed by. As they discussed organic chemistry, one student said, “Yes, I have Ashby, did you see that first exam … she’s insane!”
So when you felt like you were pushed to your limit and wondered if your professors had lost touch with reality, the answer was … maybe, sometimes. But our service to every student who enters this University is to challenge you to exercise their intellectual muscles. We know that you have the enthusiasm and that you are smart coming in the door, but we also realize how important putting in the time to build mental discipline through a rigorous intellectual approach is. We know that when you do this, all of your efforts that follow (service and otherwise) will be more effective, more well-organized, more forward-thinking and forward-moving.
So, I congratulate you on stepping up and accepting the many challenges that were presented to you. You know it’s hard to beat enthusiasm that comes with preparation. And that brings me to point No. 2.
Authenticity is essential for service that inspires.
I’ve discovered that there are few things that inspire like people who act from a place of genuineness, knowing who they are and being true to themselves.
Now that may sound easy, but when pushed and pulled in a variety of directions, or when a host of wonderful opportunities are presented to you (and they will be), or when some activities have more visibility and recognition, but less meaning to you, it may take a conscious decision and a little courage to remain true to who you are and to what is important to you. So how will you do it?
Well, in those moments, I reflect. I reflect on my mother (that same lady who walked across Kenan Stadium), a dynamic English teacher, who as I was growing up, would find great joy reciting and discussing Robert Frost and Shakespeare … regularly. I remember my father, who was an equally passionate science and mathematics teacher and minister.
With their examples of commitment to who they were and what they loved, I arrived at UNC as a naive 17-year-old in the midst of the who-shot-JR 1980’s. (Students, who have no clue, you can just check with your parents to find out who JR was.) Here, I met people whose service to the University was made more powerful by their authenticity.
Their names and faces I can never forget … Like Dean (Hayden) Renwick, one of the most outspoken champions for students that I have ever known. Like Professors (Royce) Murray, (the late Ernest) Eliel and (Bill) Little, accomplished, renowned scientists who were just as committed to performing the service of teaching – the service of teaching a room full of 17-, 18- and 19-year-olds much like me.
I was fortunate to be here during the time of Dr. Sonja Haynes Stone, the professor for whom our Center for Black Culture and History is named, and a compelling presence and powerful example of the true service that comes out of being authentic.
And, I remember like it was yesterday, Professor Henry Frierson telling me when I was a still-uncertain senior, “You’re not a medical student. You’re a scientist and a teacher. You want to direct your own research program, and you are going to need a Ph.D.”
And if I ever lose sight of the importance of investing time in the training of students, I’ll remember a young Joseph DeSimone, my Ph.D. adviser, who would drink coffee with me at 6:30 in the morning, in his office, in the basement of the beloved Venable Hall. And when the roof wasn’t leaking, he would teach me not only how to think about synthetic polymer chemistry, but also show me how to navigate graduate school, the first year of which for me was difficult.
So, I tell you of these people because I am confident that you too have gathered a book of your own stories much like these that will be there in times of decision to help keep you grounded … reflections of people whom you have met along the way who know who they are, who are committed to what they do, who helped you to see who you could be, and who in their unique, authentic ways were of tremendous service.
And so as you walk out of this experience certainly a more informed person than the one who sang “In my Mind, I’m Going to Carolina” at convocation, ask yourselves, where am I now uniquely suited for service? If that answer is still evolving for you, keep asking questions …
What injustice makes you stand on your soap box?
What great need is there for which you have a creative idea?
What great divide can your skills help to bridge?
With which people do you identify or have great compassion?
That will be the topic. There will be the place, and those will be the people.
And the beauty of living is that today it could be greening the Earth or … world hunger and poverty … or adult education and literacy … and years down the road, it can be something completely different to which you are just as committed.
What I know is that when you find it, and when your gifts and talents are uniquely suited for it, and when you are not just enthusiastic, but prepared and deeply committed to it, like the people that I mentioned and the people in your own book of reflection, you will have the power to inspire.
Now in all of the “good feeling” that can be generated when we talk about service, we arrive at point No. 3.
Service often requires a sacrifice.
It’s been said that nothing is impossible for the man who doesn’t have to do it himself.
A recent example for me of the willingness to sacrifice is one of my former students who graduated in May. His passion is global health equity. However, before pursuing a graduate degree in public health, he decided to go and serve in the Peace Corps and was assigned to Togo, West Africa. His project is one in which he will implement a youth health education program for a village. In our recent conversation, he described his difficult living conditions. Yet, he ended the conversation by saying that when he met the children in that village, it made the living conditions so worth it.
Imagine the difference that his sacrifice will make to those youth. Then imagine the effect of what he will learn from them as he further prepares himself in his public health graduate studies … And we’re right back where we began with preparation.
So let’s see: Number 1: Enthusiasm AND Preparation
Number 2: Authenticity AND Inspiration
Number 3: Service AND Sacrifice
And so as I close, my challenge to you is to remember that impact is always more than what you can see, and may not be immediate. So take heart when asked, “How much of an effect could one person’s service really have?”
Just remember, you will not be acting singularly. You will be acting in concert with the more than 200,000 UNC graduates who live in more than 140 countries around the world. And be encouraged when asked, “Where could your service within a small community possibly lead?” After all, maybe it’s possible that your service might be like that of a community organizer, freshly graduated from Columbia University, who at the age of 24, used his gifts and talents to change the lives of just the few around him, in a South Side Chicago inner city neighborhood, never imagining that those efforts might lead him to a place where he could influence millions not just in this country, but around the world.
Again, my sincere congratulations to each one of you, and we look forward to all of the wonderful ways that you will make this university proud and the world a better place! Congratulations!