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Cohen's challenge to grads is short but not easy

By Luanne Williams

Dr. Mandy Cohen might have given the most succinct three pieces of advice in the history of commencement speeches: Believe in yourself. Be uncomfortable. Listen more. But the Secretary of the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, who addressed Wingate University graduates via a video released late last week, admitted that the words she hoped would inspire graduates are easier said than done.

“I know the practicality of believing in yourself is really hard,” Cohen said, sharing some of her own struggles over the past year as leader of the state’s response to Covid-19. 

“I’ll tell you there were a few times this year when my faith waned, when I thought I was not smart enough, or this job was too big or too frustrating, or I was just frankly too tired to keep going,” she said. “But each time, I was lucky enough to have my life partner, my husband, who was able to believe in me when I doubted myself.”

She told graduates to tap into the belief that others have in them and to remember past successes, whether large or small. 

“Harness all this love, energy and faith. Bottle it up, remember it, call upon it and use it to believe in yourself,” Cohen said. “Because, if you have faith in yourself, you will accomplish your goals.”

On the way to those goals, Cohen said graduates must get out of their comfort zones. 

She described her own discomfort over the past year as she stepped into a more public job, often giving news conferences, sharing unwelcome truths about Covid, and answering hard questions from the media. But she said an even better illustration of the necessity of being uncomfortable was an experience she had as a 10-year-old who traveled to France as part of an exchange program. Having landed in Paris, she found herself terribly homesick. Because she was a picky eater, she also found herself too uncomfortable to try new foods and went several days without eating until her host mother told her she would have to send her home if she didn’t eat. 

“That next day, I pushed past my uncomfortableness. I got more and more brave and truly, I’ve never looked back,” Cohen said. “If we stay in our comfort zones, that can feel good in the moment, but it is also really limiting.”

“Being uncomfortable is the only way to truly make your biggest and most positive impact on the world,” she added.

Finally, Cohen urged graduates to sharpen their listening skills.

“If you truly listen and try to understand where someone is coming from, it builds trust, it builds empathy and it builds solutions,” Cohen said. “I saw this play out many times this past year as we tried to navigate the incredibly hard decisions around covid. Should we reopen schools? Should we keep this venue or that venue closed? Who can get access to the limited vaccines when we first had them?”

Cohen said balancing the public’s health and safety needs along with the needs of businesses, workers and families involved hundreds of hours listening to people with different perspectives and expertise.

She told graduates to take advice from Winston Churchill, who said, “Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” 

“If you do these things using all the knowledge and support and love you gave at Wingate, I know the future is bright and you will be making your impact building a kinder and more just world,” Cohen concluded.

Learn more about Cohen. Watch the Commencement video that includes her speech.

May 16, 2021