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The Carolina students who received degrees during Commencement weekend had an opportunity to find a sense of community during their years in Chapel Hill, Dr. Atul Gawande, a celebrated surgeon and best-selling author, said Sunday.

Their goal now, he told the Class of 2014: create new ones.

“One thing I came to realize after college was that the search for purpose is really a search for a place, not an idea,’’ Gawande told the crowd of approximately 33,000 graduates, family and friends. “It is a search for a location in the world where you want to be part of making things better for others in our own small way.

“…If you find yourself in a place where you stop caring – where your greatest concern becomes only you – get out of there. You want to put yourself in a place that suits who you are, links you to others, and gives you a purpose larger than yourself in some way.”

Sunday’s purpose at sunny Kenan Stadium was to celebrate the tassel-turning of the estimated 5,516 undergraduate, graduate and professional Carolina students who studied, served, led and learned at UNC.

Chancellor Carol L. Folt, presiding over her first spring Carolina Commencement, congratulated the new alumni, telling them they “will forever by my first class of graduates at Carolina, and I am so proud of you.” UNC’s first female chancellor also charged the graduates to “be true to your heart, find the place in yourselves where your courage, your integrity, your compassion and thankfulness are centered. When you draw from those wells, your journey will be one of meaning and purpose.”

Lowry Caudill, chair of the Board of Trustees, told graduates they can change the world: “We want you to be prepared to see a need and think, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’ … To start with a question, gather information, engage partners, persevere to attain a goal and then implement new ideas and solutions. That’s what we mean when we talk about being innovative and entrepreneurial.”

Class President Georgia Walker spoke of memories past, and thanked UNC’s faculty and staff, among others.

And Gawande, who practices general and endocrine surgery at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston and is a professor in the department of health policy and management at the Harvard School of Public Health and professor of surgery at Harvard Medical School, provided a heartfelt keynote.

He spoke of research showing that the social and emotional quality of life of children with cancer is as good of that of healthy children – and sometimes better. That, he said, is because their community around them – the hospital, their family, their support network, and their connections with other children in similar circumstances — were so powerful it all could carry them through terrible challenges.

“But it doesn’t take suffering to find out how potent a feeling of purpose and connection to community can be,’’ he said. “I suspect you have experienced something very much like that feeling here in college and discovered how much it can make you grow.”

And that growth can, and should, continue.

“Nobody here knows where the place for you will be,’’ Gawande said. “But graduates, we do know there is a place for you. In fact, there are likely many of them. You are even going to create some of those places yourselves, and the world is going to benefit from that. That is the reason we are all excited for you today – and the reason you too can be glad to move on.”

Throughout the ceremony, graduates displayed “I love you Mom” and “We love you too, Dad” signs in the bleachers, and as the Class of 1964 marched in, candidates for baccalaureate degrees held up letters spelling out “Congratulations, Class of 1964. Thank you for leading the way.”

It capped a special weekend.

Saturday, Timothy Beatley, a pioneering researcher in the field of “green urbanism” and sustainability, spoke at the Doctoral Hooding Ceremony on Saturday. Beatley, who received his doctorate in city and regional planning and his master’s degree in political science from UNC-Chapel Hill, is the Teresa Heinz Professor of Sustainable Communities in the Department of Urban and Environmental Planning within the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. He has written or co-written more than 15 books. The American Planning Association has recognized his book Ethical Land Use as one of its “100 Essential Books in Planning.”

Watch Gawande’s Commencement address.

Read Gawande’s Commencement address.

By Robbi Pickeral, UNC News Services

Published May 11, 2014