UNC grads urged to seek larger purpose

May. 11, 2014 @ 08:12 PM

Best-selling author and surgeon Atul Atmaram Gawande exhorted nearly 6,000 sun-soaked UNC graduates to identify and zealously employ their innate gifts to bring a shared sense of community to a harsh world because “you cannot flourish without a larger purpose.”
New UNC Chancellor Carol L. Folt presided over the joyous occasion with 33,000 of UNC’s closest friends and parents in attendance. She told the graduates each class that has gone out of UNC has had pioneers and innovators, and this was a day “to anticipate the mark each one of you will make in the world ahead.”
The commencement coincided with Mother’s Day, and brought out brightly colored “Thank You Mom” and “Happy Mothers Day. We love you too dad” placards from the 3,730 graduates in the baccalaureate section.
As the first woman chancellor at the nation’s oldest public university, Folt recognized some other firsts – 671 graduates who were the first members of their families to go to university – and saluted 27 graduates who will begin immediate active duty as ensigns or second lieutenants in the Armed Forces.
A smiling Folt said, “You will also forever be my very first class at Carolina. … You are the finest testament to the future of this great university I can imagine.” The class included 1,423 students with master’s degrees, 217 with doctoral degrees, and 621 with professional degrees.
Gawande, who received one of six honorary doctorates conferred during the ceremony, contrasted the power of community with the inadequacies of self-interest. He posited the concept in the context of a colleague’s cancer research.
His friend was disappointed because his research to identify ways to help improve young cancer patients’ quality of life failed to distinguish much difference between them and a non-cancer control group. He thought the metrics of his questionnaire were flawed.
Despite life in a wheelchair, loss of hair, oxygen tubes in their noses, chemotherapy treatments and lives at risk, the cancer patients self-identified a quality of life that matched or surpassed the healthy population, and “piles of research” since then have corroborated the “puzzling” findings, Gawande said.
St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital in Memphis found that only half of the cancer patients in its study, with an average age of 13, said cancer was their worst problem. Some said it was homelessness, losing relatives to drive-by shootings, deaths of family members, and dealing with Hurricane Katrina.
The cancer patients grew stronger because they were in a compassionate environment of medical people who cared about them, were surrounded by loving family, and socially connected with other children in similar straits with whom they forged bonds of belonging and self-belief.
“The combination was so powerful it could carry them through their terrible travails,” Gawande said, using that as an example why the graduates should discover and hone their gifts.
“We all have an intrinsic need to pursue purposes larger than ourselves, purposes worth making sacrifices for,” Gawande said.
Several graduates said they already are mapping out their futures.
Valerie Eng of Chapel Hill, a business major with a minor in Spanish, is going to work with Clarkson Consulting in Durham.
“I’m particularly thankful that I was a business major because at Kenan-Flagler they really push you to get a job really early. I got the job offer back in October, and all of my friends have already gotten and accepted jobs,” Eng said.
Swetha Pasala of Fairfax County, Va., got a biology degree, plans to get a master’s in public health, and is applying to medical school.
“I think I’m one of the lucky ones” who doesn’t have to enter a “rough job market out there,” Pasala said. “I feel job security for doctors is pretty decent.”
Pasala hopes to get into medical school at UNC.
“I made really good friends here in Chapel Hill so I think if anything I’m going to miss the atmosphere the most,” Pasala said.