525 days later: Morehead-Cain Class of 2020 returns to Chapel Hill for commencement celebration

The UNC–Chapel Hill Class of 2020 returned to campus earlier this month for three days of University-hosted commencement celebrations.

The festivities, which took place October 8–10, included several traditions for graduating Tar Heels, such as tailgates and climbs of the Morehead-Patterson Bell Tower. The young alumni were also recognized at the Saturday football game against Florida State. 

On Sunday afternoon, around 3,000 members of the class of 2020 and 14,000 of their guests attended Carolina’s commencement ceremony in Kenan Stadium. The class comprises 4,053 undergraduates, 2,350 graduate students, and 585 professional students.

Acknowledging the hardships they faced from having their last semester of college cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said the weekend was about “taking that time back” and fulfilling the University’s promise to provide a belated, in-person opportunity to mark the milestone of graduating.

“It’s about stopping and looking around, taking in the beauty of this magnificent campus, saying ‘thank you’ to a professor who challenged you to see the world differently, [and] cheering on the Tar Heels in Kenan Stadium again,” Guskiewicz said. All classes at the University went fully online in March 2020.

Carolina’s former men’s basketball coach, Roy Williams, delivered the keynote address for the October 10 ceremony. Williams retired in April 2021 after 18 seasons and three NCAA championships with the Tar Heels. 

“We will always be connected by the thread that is the Morehead-Cain”  

The Morehead-Cain Class of 2020 kicked off the weekend with the Senior Dinner. The event, typically hosted by the Foundation’s trustees annually for graduating Morehead-Cain Scholars, had been postponed for their class due to the pandemic. In spring 2020, the trustees had promised the class the opportunity of coming back to campus to experience the more-than-60-year-old tradition when the University hosted its postponed commencement celebrations.

The alumni gathered at the Foundation on Friday evening to reminisce about their time at Carolina and to celebrate their personal triumphs and collective growth since receiving their diplomas. The event began with a panoramic group photo on the steps of the Morehead Planetarium & Science Center. 

Patton Orr ’20 and Elizabeth Stockton ’20 provided the invocation. More than a celebration, the night was one of “thankfulness and gratitude for the people, places, and things” that encapsulated their experiences as Morehead-Cain Scholars, said Patton, who graduated with a degree in business administration and a minor in religious studies. 

“We’re thankful for . . . this town, this campus, this institution, and for the classes, professors, peers, and opportunities that shaped us over these four years that we had here,” the alumnus said. 

Elizabeth paid tribute to the alumni present, the nineteen alumni who were unable to attend, and the late Wynn Burrus ’20, whose “joyful spirit remains strong and steadfast,” within each member of the class. The alumna’s message to her peers was one of hope. 

“We look forward to the next chapter of our lives, aspiring to apply the perspective and wisdom we gained throughout our time at UNC to guide our hearts, minds, and experiences in all that we do, say, and impact,” said Elizabeth, who also earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration. 

In a champagne toast by Nikhil Arora ’20 following the dinner, the alumnus expressed gratitude to his classmates for depending on one another throughout times of adversity and isolation. 

“The love and compassion that we witnessed when Wynn passed away, the intentionality to remain connected despite a global pandemic, and the countless days of laughter and warmth we’ve shared remind us that we can always count on one another no matter the circumstances,” said Nikhil, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration and a minor in statistics and analytics. 

Nikhil also acknowledged the leadership of the Foundation. 

“The board’s commitment to each and every one of us allows us to rest easy knowing that they’ll always act in the best interests of the Program and the scholar experience.” He thanked staff members for making their class “feel cared for and supported” throughout their college careers. 

Tai Huynh ’20 delivered the keynote speech for the gathering. The Town of Chapel Hill council member shared about the struggles he’s navigated in the past 19 months, including managing emergency housing assistance funds for local families. As the co-founder and CEO of Acta Solutions, Tai also spoke about the difficulties of rebuilding a GovTech startup (in partnership with co-founder Pavani Peri ’20) after the business was ravaged by the economic effects of COVID-19.

“I’ve learned a lot this past year and a half about remaining grounded amidst the chaos, asking for counsel when making tough decisions, and being thoughtful while remaining decisive,” the entrepreneur told the audience. The Morehead-Cain Class of 2020 includes 67 alumni, 48 of which were able to attend the dinner.

Tai also pointed to the role his parents, friends, and the Foundation have played in supporting him and his classmates. 

“Thanks to the Morehead-Cain for allowing me the means to explore who I am, the impact I want to have, and the life I want to lead, so that I can choose a path out of genuine passion instead of only based on financial survival,” he said. “No matter where we end up in the world, we will always be connected by the thread that is the Morehead-Cain.”  

Morehead-Cain Board of Trustees Chairman David Wright ’80 encouraged the class to take advantage of the Program’s network, describing its capacity for making enriching connections as “the strength of the Program.” 

“[Being a Morehead-Cain] is a lifelong distinction, and it will continue to open doors for you,” he said. The chairman also urged the alumni to live a life of service and to lead in their communities. 

Morehead-Cain President Chris Bradford ended the evening by recognizing each alumnus and alumna for their academic achievements while at Carolina and their accomplishments since. During a typical Senior Dinner event, Foundation leadership honors the class by highlighting their college achievements and future plans, and by bestowing each senior with a framed Morehead-Cain certificate. 

Access photos from the event

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