UNC-Chapel Hill’s 2024 Commencement: highs, lows, protests, and bittersweet reflections

A Carolina Blue Sky before UNC-Chapel Hill’s Graduation ceremony Saturday Evening. Photo by Thomas Hicks.


By Thomas Hicks
Intern Correspondent

(The Local Reporter congratulates our intern Thomas Hicks on his graduation from UNC-Chapel Hill last Saturday. He shares his perspective on the ceremony as a journalist and correspondent with TLR.)

This past weekend, thousands of UNC-Chapel Hill students from different places, cultures, and fields of study graduated from what Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts calls “The University of the people.”

Students started to file in at 5:30 p.m., and you saw all these seniors mingling on the field, sitting with friends and housemates, and reconnecting with old acquaintances. Rarely do you have this large of a field of peers in one place who have had so many shared experiences.

And those experiences are many. The class of 2024 started their college careers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students were taking classes from home and were isolated. There were multiple suicides the year after. There was a shooting in the fall of 2023. This class had been through a lot.

But now they finally had time to celebrate.

At the end, smiling faces threw caps in the air. Seeing people reconnect or say final goodbyes, whether they knew it or not, was a bitter but very sweet part of the ceremony.

One graduating senior reflected on the graduation proceedings and said,

“Graduation was good, and it helped me reflect on the work I did at UNC. I felt really celebrated!”

The ceremony is typically a daytime event, but this year, it started at 7 p.m., so the graduation ended at night. The proceedings wrapped up roughly an hour and a half later. And it was an interesting graduation.

In an atypical fashion, key speakers were booed, particularly Interim Chancellor Lee Roberts, who was heavily scrutinized as the Board of Trustees’ pick for Interim Chancellor. He has recently received more flak from students who were not happy with how he and the university handled the Palestine Protest situation on campus, where multiple students were arrested on the morning of April 30th.

Thankfully, the event moved on and was highlighted by an outstanding commencement speaker, UNC two-time alum Zena Cardman. Good things are expected when you get a NASA astronaut in the building who is passionate about her alma mater.

UNC alumna Zena Cardman. NASA astronaut and commencement speaker. Photo Courtesy of WTVD.

Zena Cardman received a Bachelor of Science in Biology in 2010. She became a Tar Heel for the second time in 2014 with a Master of Science in Marine Sciences.

She brought an amazing demeanor and resume for a commencement speaker. She will be leading a NASA team to the International Space Station in the fall, on top of her academic career at UNC. And she will be leading that mission as its commander.

Upon taking the stage, she said, “Carolina. My goodness. It is so good to be home.”

She said it with a smile, a big one. She helped express the sweet part of the bittersweet sentiment that so many seniors were probably feeling.

She credited the students for their academics and their sense of justice and morality.

She then spoke of how she would be taking off in a giant rocket in the fall, quickly piercing the atmosphere and heading to space.

“I have to tell you, truthfully, that giving this speech is the most terrifying thing I will do this year.”

She was the perfect balance of passionate, genuine, and fun. She cracked jokes, related well to the students and appreciated their experience as well. Then Cardman spoke of her shared experiences with her team she will take to space. How they rely on each other. How she has been fulfilled by humbling roles. The highlighted speaker of the night gave a few pearls of wisdom before departing:

“If you want to be a trailblazer, just start walking. You will need help, and you will give help.”

She was encouraging and grounding.

One graduating student, now an alumnus, was particularly impressed. Paul Ahearn is a graduate with honors, an EXSS major, and a chemistry minor. He went on to say:

“An incredibly intriguing character! She was preparing to go to the International Space Station. It was interesting to think that a person who walked the same path to class as me would be in space in August. It really goes to show that Carolina reaches everywhere, even to the stars!”

The ceremony went on and started to wrap up as the night got darker. Chancellor Lee Roberts started making some closing remarks, which was shortly followed by an acapella group from campus. But before that, a group of presumably students in cap and gown got up in the front, started walking out into the middle aisle, and pulled out Palestinian flags in protest.

Students walk out in cap and gown, holding two Palestinian flags. Photo by Thomas Hicks.

Roberts ceased speaking and let them pass. They were greeted with a myriad of responses. Some students cheered and clapped; some flipped the bird and yelled at them. USA chants broke out in the stands between the field and the back left corner of the endzone, with the bell tower looming over. It was an abrupt and short interruption that did not seem surprising to many students and onlookers.

Security was heightened in light of recent protests on campus, which at times got violent or at least tense. Clear bags were required this year at all graduations. Students had to show their student IDs, also called UNC One Cards, to staff in order to enter department graduations and the large Saturday commencement.

One graduating senior commented after the commencement: “I was worried about grad stuff going smoothly because of political stuff. Every time Chancellor Lee Roberts spoke, I got nervous. I’m shocked it went as well as it did, besides the flag stuff.”

But despite worries and the chants and boos, the proceedings continued.

Seniors got to sit under a clear night sky with their friends, flip their tassels from right to left, sing the alma mater, and be treated to an amazing fireworks and light show that excited the crowd.

Fireworks and light show at UNC graduation at Kenan Stadium. Photo by Thomas Hicks.

Much like these UNC students’ careers, the ceremony was a little tumultuous but had plenty of highlights. It gave students time to reflect, reconnect, and move on to the next thing. A classic song by James Taylor played at one point in the ceremony. Its signature line will probably stick in students’ heads for years to come,

In my mind, I’m gone to Carolina.”

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