The UNC Class of 2021 has two of the nation’s leading scientists coming to graduation—and one of them is an alumna.

The school announced Thursday that Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and the face of the nation’s COVID-19 response, will give a virtual speech for its spring graduation ceremonies. Fauci will join UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and Cedar Grove native Dr. Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett, a research fellow with NIAID and former fellow at the National Institutes of Health whose previous research of coronaviruses led her to play a key role in the creation of the Moderna vaccine (no word on if she’s met Dolly Parton). Her speech will also be pre-recorded.

“Over this past year, these two medical leaders have worked tirelessly to serve our country and keep us safe,” Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz said in a press statement. “Drs. Fauci and Corbett embody our University’s mission of teaching, research, and service. Their commitment to saving lives through discovery and innovation will inspire our graduates as they enter the next chapter of their lives.”

Fauci may have name recognition, but Corbett is no second fiddle. Fauci has praised Corbett’s work in the past, including in a Time article naming her one of the most influential people in the world. Currently, she’s working to ease the minds of those who may be hesitant to get vaccinated.

“This moment for my life and career is gratifying, but people are dying,” she said in a January Orange County Board of Commissioners meeting, where the board declared January 20 “Dr. Kizzmekia S. Corbett Day.” 

“There is a large amount of vaccine hesitancy that rests as a burden on my shoulders,” she continued. “I have committed myself to the effort, and not just from the vaccine design standpoint. At this point this vaccine is the only thing that will change the trajectory of the pandemic.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it hard to celebrate our happy moments: Birthdays, weddings, holidays, and graduations. UNC-CH’s Class of 2020 did not get its graduation ceremony last May as the virus took hold of the state and country.

This year’s solution is three in-person, ticketed ceremonies scheduled for the middle of May. None of the ceremonies fall on Mother’s Day, the day Tar Heel alums have matriculated for decades (except for in 2020). The 2020 class may finally get its ceremony, too—Guskiewicz said in the announcement that the current plan is to hold a “reunion weekend” in October 2021.

“Commencement is one of the most exciting and joyous occasions on campus, and we look forward to honoring our graduates and their achievements, despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic,” Guskiewicz says.

Each ceremony will be split by college and majors and will feature the prerecordings of Fauci and Corbett, alongside some in-person pomp. Students will be allowed two tickets for the ceremony. All the festivities will still be subject to the school and state’s pandemic policies.


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