Four questions with Winter Commencement speaker Paul Cuadros

Story by Brandon Bieltz and photo by Jon Gardiner, Communications and Public Affairs 
Originally published Dec. 12, 2016, on

When Paul Cuadros takes the stage at Sunday’s Winter Commencement, he will continue Carolina’s long-standing tradition of having outstanding faculty members serve as the featured speaker of the annual ceremony. 

It’s an honor, he said, that he never expected.

“This was completely out of the blue,” Cuadros said. “I was completely taken by surprise when I was told about it. It was a great honor, and I’m really humbled by the invitation to speak.”

Cuadros, an associate professor in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Media and Journalism and the executive director of the UNC Scholars’ Latino Initiative, will deliver the commencement address at the graduation, which takes place on Dec. 18 at 2 p.m. in the Dean E. Smith Center.

As a professor and mentor, Cuadros has encouraged his students to investigate issues affecting communities, the state, the country and the world by examining race and poverty in America. He has spent his tenure at Carolina focusing on that mission.

Cuadros joined the University in 2006 and serves as the chair and executive director of the UNC Scholars’ Latino Initiative, a three-year mentoring and college preparatory program between Carolina students and Latino students at six area high schools.

He is also the co-founder of two campus organizations aimed at creating a more inclusive campus: the Carolina Latina/o Collaborative, a Latino educational and cultural center, and the Latina/o Caucus, a coalition of faculty and staff that advocates for Latino interests on campus.

His work opening doors for minority students, faculty and staff earned Cuadros the UNC Diversity Award in 2012.

At Winter Commencement, he hopes to draw on his experiences to prepare students for the next phase of their lives.

We caught up with Cuadros as he prepared to speak at Winter Commencement:

What are you most looking forward to about Winter Commencement?

“I’m looking forward to the day because it’s such a family day. We’re all going to be there together and we’ve all been part of Carolina and I think that is such a warm environment for everybody. We get to say congratulations and we get to say goodbye too. That goodbye is not forever, of course, because we want our students to come back and be a part of our school again. It’s just going to be a rich, warm time.”

What is the message that you are hoping to share with the graduates?

“Initially, I was going to start writing my speech as soon as I got the announcement, but that was before the election. So then I decided that I would wait until after the election since we had been in this kind of tough and contentious campaign leading up to the November election. I figured I should just wait because who knows what could happen.

“Now I’m crafting it, and I’m thinking that the speech will focus on change and how the country is changing, my role as a journalist in covering those changes and whatever life journey I’ve had that I can impart on the students.”

What is the main piece of advice you hope the students take away from your speech?

“One of the main things I want them to take away is to understand that they are going to be going through many changes in their lives. The person that they’re trying to become today is not necessarily going to be the person they’re going to be 10 years from now, 20 years from now or 30 years from now. To accumulate wisdom and to understand to accept their true nature and their true calling in their life. In speaking to the students that I have, everybody’s really anxious about what they’re going to do and where they’re going to work. Some of people have a great idea and an excellent pathway on what they want to do in life, but often times we find that what we started with isn’t necessarily what we end up with.”

When you were graduating from college, what is some advice you wish you had received?

“I’m a graduate of the University of Michigan so I was a real go-getter and I wanted to break into the advertising agency — and eventually I did. I think one of the things that would have helped me is to hear from somebody to simply stick to your guns and persevere in the obstacles that you’re going to face in terms of building a career and to be flexible about how that might play over time.”