I am pleased to introduce this morning’s Commencement speaker, for she is not only a former colleague of mine but also a dear friend. She is passionate. She is intense. She is a warm demander. She is kind. She is funny.
She is the embodiment of what Princeton Professor Maria DiBattista calls a “fast-talking dame:” one in a long line throughout history of distinguished and dazzling women who are known for being sharp-witted and quick on the uptake, with never a downbeat. She always seems to know what to say and when to say it. She is joyous. She is on the move. She is a force of nature. She is a leader. She is Courtney Banghart.
She also happens to be an extraordinary NCAA Division I women’s college basketball coach. Twelve years ago, Courtney inherited a Princeton University program that had never played in the NCAA tournament. Since then, she has led the program to the NCAA tournament in eight of the last ten years—including this year. Courtney has just been named the next head women’s basketball coach at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and like our seniors, we cannot wait to see what she does next.
Courtney has received countless accolades, including being named the 2015 Naismith National Coach of the Year and one of Fortune Magazine's World's 50 Greatest Leaders alongside names like Bill and Melinda Gates, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Girls Who Code Founder Reshma Saujani, who was Hewitt’s 2017 Commencement speaker. Yet what is more impressive to me than her accolades is the fact that, with each new achievement and accomplishment, Courtney remains impressively down to earth, hilariously self-deprecating, and firmly grounded. As I have told her many times, Courtney’s superpower is her authenticity.
Courtney has built a program in which young women learn to become leaders both on and off the court. But don’t take my word for it. Hear what one of her own former student-athletes, Tia Weledji, said about her:
“Hardworking, passionate, enthusiastic, motivating, and compassionate are only a few of the words I could use to describe Coach Banghart. On paper, her success is evident...but it is Coach Banghart’s character that really makes her one of the best coaches in the nation. She is a leader in every sense of the word and because of that, she has made me a better player, but more importantly, a better person…Coach Banghart takes it upon herself to develop and improve every player who comes through her program and makes sure they leave her with more confidence and with a better understanding of themselves…Coach Banghart has helped shape me into a strong, fearless, and motivated leader with the skills necessary to go confidently into my next phases of life.”
Empowering young women to go confidently into the next phases of their lives is exactly why we are gathered here today, and it is at the very heart of Hewitt’s mission. As two-time Olympic gold medalist and FIFA World Cup soccer champion Abby Wambach writes in her newly published manifesto for women, Wolfpack: “What I learned is that the most inspiring thing on earth is a woman who believes in herself, who gives 100 percent, and who owns her greatness unapologetically.”
Courtney, you have been and will continue to be an inspiration to young women everywhere, and we are honored that you have joined us this morning to share your thoughts on being a woman, being a leader, and making a difference. Please join me in welcoming our 2019 Commencement speaker, Courtney Banghart.
Remarks to the Class of 2019
Courtney Banghart, Head Women's Basketball Coach at The University of North Carolina
Thank you so much, Tara, Dean Kinsey, Dr. Kinsey. A woman of so many names and hats in my life. Your bright light is one that I will always follow. I’m honored to be here with you and your people.
Well, hello 2019 graduates! Let me be honest, this is my first commencement address. You know that saying about how the more times you do things, the better you get at them? I prefer: “Fake it until you make it.” Either way, I assume the bar is pretty low, given that basketball coaches don’t typically give commencement speeches.
So that’s a good place to start. Yes, I’m a college basketball coach. And with two Ivy League degrees, I’m also the most expensively educated one in the country.
I was here in New York City in 2015 being honored as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders. Somehow, I found my way onto the same list with Tim Cook, Elon Musk, Taylor Swift, and… the Pope. At the honorary dinner, I was seated next to Katie Couric. After the typical pleasantries, we get to the question I was hoping we’d avoid: “What do you do?” When she asked, I responded, “Well, I work at Princeton.” Ms. Couric replied, “What a beautiful place! And what do you do there?” After a long pause, I replied, “I’m the women’s basketball coach.” To which she asked, “All day?”
You should have seen her face when she realized I was the keynote speaker.
Anyway… yes, I coach college basketball… all day, 365 days a year. When Tara asked me if I wanted to speak to you all, I was the Princeton women’s basketball coach. Now, I’m the North Carolina basketball coach.
So in a lot of ways, I’m just like you graduates: in a time of transition. I was at a place where I connected with the core values, a place that felt like home, a place where I grew up (as a coach), and where I had so many successes. It was a place that I knew was challenging me and surrounding me with the best of the best. For you, that probably sounds a whole lot like Hewitt.
And then, on April 23, I left it all. I wasn’t asked to leave, like you all are, I chose to leave. And like some of you, I was sad to leave my safe nest. But also like so many of you, I am driven for life’s next adventure. It is our time to fly, graduates. So I empathize with the range of emotions you will go through over the next few months, and I’m sure grateful to be here, not in front of you, but amongst you.
Typically, I speak on leadership, since my livelihood depends on it. In the most simple terms, I’m trying to get a population of people ages 18-22 who are finding their independence and have the least interest in being controlled to do something together. Very deliberately, I build community. I’m judged by wins and losses, but the foundation of who I am and what we do is culture. Culture is what you allow, emphasize, and celebrate. Culture is what defines you. Take care of your culture, and “the score takes care of it itself.” True in life. True in leadership.
What I’ve learned most about culture and leadership is to never lose the pieces. The team is a whole, but there is no whole without the pieces. On my teams, we work hard and together to ensure there are no weak links and that no one gets lost, or allows themselves to be shrunk or hidden within the whole. So I coach my pieces. And we play as a team. I talk to you today like I do my team, as pieces, and by the end we’ll agree to be a whole of great teammates.
We don’t have a lot of rules in our program, as 18-22-year olds don’t always do well with rules. But we do have standards. I’ll share a few of the key ones.
There will be no weak links. And by that I mean, show up. Aim to fully engage in life’s moments. Look people in the eye and listen actively. Use social media way less and engage in real life, not in comparisons. Ask questions of others and care about their answers. Embrace the opportunities and people on campus. Touch the lines, go to class. Own that there are no two yous. I’m the mom of twins and I can say that with certainty. Life is not about fitting in or conforming to stereotypes—it’s about shining bright as the best you.
Remember that transitions are our growth opportunities. Every year, I see freshmen come from being the top dog, the smartest, the best on the court, to their new experiences as if they are trying out for life all over again. Transitions take time, patience, and purpose. And yes, they can make you question it all and yourself, but don’t be on the sidelines, graduates. Don’t allow yourself to shrink. Choose to show up.
You’ll soon be at different schools, with different traditions and different norms. You’ll join different teams. Your sense of place will feel different. There will be days when you look around and fall victim to comparisons. But take it from me: the only way to go is two feet in. Listen and watch, but also share, speak up, and lean in.
In your most basic form, you are an evolving, reflective, thoughtful, imperfect being doing the best you can to navigate all the possibilities that life throws your way. That’s who I am too.
And that’s who your parents and siblings are. Your soon-to-be roommates. Your faculty members. No one has this thing called life figured out. And that’s exactly the point. Life is a process for us all. And the key to attacking life as we transition through it is to show up, to commit to not being the weak link.
Be a Good Teammate
Your words are powerful, and your actions are meaningful.
Your words are powerful. Say hello when you’re walking across the quad, when you walk into class, the gym, and your dorm room. Say please and thank you — in the dining hall, to your professors, to your bus drivers. Treat others with respect. Look them in the eye when they talk, and remember that your lens isn’t the only lens. And never forget that your body language speaks loudest.
Your actions are meaningful. Prioritize sleep. Smile. People want to be around smiling faces. Take classes that you’re interested in. Spend 30 extra minutes in the dining hall with people you haven’t met. Join a club or an intramural team. Share a purpose with people that don’t look like you or come from a different place or background. They’ll make life more interesting to you, just as you will to them. Life flows through people, and interesting people at that. So be interesting and seek interesting.
Your words are powerful, your actions are meaningful… and life is a team sport. Be a good teammate.
Find Your Passion, Not Your Job
We aim to live adventurous, colorful, meaningful lives, right? Let me tell you and be an example: there isn’t always a clear path.
I’ll never forget when I walked into my first economics class in college. I sat next to a girl who had one of those pens with four different colors that you can push down to use one color at a time. Well, she used all four of the colors in the first 15 minutes of taking notes. I looked around and thought, these are not my people. I never took another econ class. Instead, I graduated with a neuroscience degree. After all, a woman in the sciences makes for a really good basketball coach, right?
More accurately, a woman empowered to study what she wants is empowered to pursue a career she wants. Hear me say this: if you’re in your line of passion, you’ll find success. A lot of it. And your work-life balance will turn into your work-life synergy.
How do you find your passion? Stay open to possibilities. Even the possibility that what you thought you wanted to study is full of people you don’t want to be around. Try something else.
Courage looks good on people.
Trust your heart. Remember that it’s a muscle — it gets stronger, so too will you.
It will break: and it will keep on beating.
It will inspire and you will be inclined to follow it.
It will speak. Listen to it.
You Hewitt women, this North Carolina coach, as we take on our next chapter, let’s promise to show up for life, be good teammates, and find, or in my case follow, our passion. All will take courage and heart, and it’s a good thing we have both.
I will close with a story, one that involves what I actually know something about: basketball. And what I was here to talk about: leadership.
It’s the time I didn’t meet the President.
I’m at the NCAA tournament, we were 30-0 going in to play in the first round of the tournament, and the president was going to be there. This was the very first time a sitting president was at an NCAA women’s basketball game. He gets there about a minute before the game, there was obviously a lot of security, and he walks by the other team’s bench first. The other team’s coach did what any normal person would do and turns around to shake the hand of the leader of the free world, honoring his attendance.
Now, I had just been in the locker room. We were going to play in front of 18,000 fans, and I had said to my team, “You know, we’re going to be in front of 18,000 fans and there will be about 200 that will be rooting for you, but you always want to dance with the one that brought you. Your words matter, and your actions are meaningful. So just stay here with me and I’m going to stay here with you.” I had just told them that, and now I have about 30 seconds until the President is going to be right behind my bench. I thought to myself, if my players turn around from warming up and they see me shaking hands with the President, they’re going to think that I wasn't there for them. So as he walked by, I just stayed locked into my team.
I was on a lot of TV and media after that game and people asked me what it was like to meet the President and I had to say, “Well, I didn't.”
While I didn’t meet the President, we did win the game. It was Princeton’s first ever NCAA Tournament win. And although I didn’t meet Barack Obama, I showed up in the moment. I was a good teammate, living the truth that my words are meaningful and my actions are powerful.
As a leader, I understand my role: to empower, to set the standard, and to bring the pieces to the whole. Someday I’ll meet the President…or maybe I won’t. But every day, I’ll empower those that call me Coach.
I hope I was able to bring a moment of inspiration to you as well. Congratulations for the work already done, and remember to lean in as you embrace all that lies ahead.