May 18, 2023

“I really hope that your dreams are big enough that they scare you.”

Dr. Raj Panjabi delivers the 2023 Gillings School Commencement speech.

Dr. Raj Panjabi delivers the 2023 Gillings School Commencement speech.

Physician and public servant Raj Panjabi, MD, MPH, shared his wishes for the nearly 650 undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students who attended the Gillings School of Global Public Health’s Commencement ceremony in Carmichael Arena on Saturday, May 13. (A total of 742 students graduated from the School this year, marking the largest public health cohort ever at UNC-Chapel Hill.)

“Pursuing dreams like that means taking risks,” Panjabi continued. “At times, you will fail. With that in mind, I want to share with you something my father taught me: ‘No condition is permanent.’ It’s OK not to have all the answers. If you become lost, you will eventually find yourself. Remembering this will help you chase the dreams that feel too big.”

Panjabi has some experience chasing big dreams. When he was nine years old, his family fled Liberia during the country’s civil war and became refugees in the United States. He went on to found Last Mile Health, a nonprofit organization that works with governments in Liberia and several other countries to improve community health systems. Recognized by TIME as one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World, Panjabi also serves as special assistant to President Biden and senior director for global health security and biodefense at the White House National Security Council.

Students fill Carmichael Arena during the Commencement ceremony.

Students fill Carmichael Arena during the Commencement ceremony.

He reminded graduates that public health efforts have doubled how long the average person will live, adding: “Investing in communities is the antidote to the mistrust that plagues public health. Communities are not the objects of change — they are the agents of change. And if you meet people where they are, the world will change.”

Graduates also heard from Dean Nancy Messonnier, MD, Bryson Distinguished Professor in Public Health, who encouraged them to work toward a future where health is a fundamental human right that is accessible to all.

“Go into the next phase of your life with hope, optimism, a little stubbornness, a dash of impatience and a lot of compassion,” she said. “You are the advocates for a healthier future. You make me believe that everything is possible.”

After walking across the stage to thunderous applause, graduates joined a network of more than 21,000 Gillings School alumni who live and work in all 100 North Carolina counties, all 50 states in the U.S. and more than 100 countries around the world.

Find photos from the event, read the Commencement program (PDF) and watch a recording of the live-streamed ceremony.

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