Arts & Humanities

‘Dream big, go slow, listen to others and believe in yourself’

“We are all average, but in our own special way,” Brian Hogan told graduating seniors at the Last Lecture. He encouraged them to to find that thing inside of them that makes them special, and then follow it.

A man gives a speech at a podium outside
Teaching Associate Professor Brian Hogan speaks at the annual Last Lecture on McCorkle Place on April 11, 2019. (Brandon Bieltz/UNC-Chapel Hill)

When members of the 2019 graduating class cast about for a speaker to deliver the Last Lecture, they wanted someone whose grandly inspirational words would guide them through the next phase of their lives.

They wanted someone who, “from Point A to Point Z,” always knew exactly how to succeed — and did it, said Brian Hogan, a biochemist who has served the past four years as the director of the Carolina Covenant and the Achieve Scholars Program.

But since that person — his wife, biology professor Kelly Hogan — wasn’t available, “I got the call,” he told his audience on April 11.

The Last Lecture had long been a tradition at Carnegie Mellon University, usually for professors nearing retirement. But the tradition got national attention in 2007, when computer science professor Randy Pausch, dying from pancreatic cancer at age 46, gave a funny, upbeat message that got millions of views online. In 2008, the University’s General Alumni Association decided to continue the Last Lecture tradition at Carolina.

His story, Hogan admitted up front, is far different from his wife’s.

“We are all average, but in our own special way,” Hogan said, encouraging students to find that thing inside of them that makes them special.

Speaking under a darkening sky on the west lawn of Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, with a gentle breeze stirring the white and blue “Class of 2019” balloons around him, Hogan recounted his turbulent story as a “terminal screw-up” who has fought the recurring demon of self-doubt at every crucial juncture of his life.

When he got into Trenton State College in New Jersey, he was so ignorant about how college worked that, in the middle of his first English literature class, taught by a professor who used the title “Doctor,” he wondered, “How does this doctor get time from her medical practice to teach us writing?”

Looking back, he said, “That was how stupid I was.”

His life began to turn around, in fits and starts, when he met Kelly. Two years later, they began dating, and she taught him the power of purpose and good study habits. When they broke up in graduate school, he ran away to a university across the country.

“There are lots of problems in life that you can run away from, but what I learned was — when the problem is between your two ears — you can’t run away from that one,” he said.

He returned to Kelly in shambles. “I know you don’t have any reason in the world to take me back, but I’d really like another chance. Please,” he told her.

She responded, “Well, cut your hair and comb the SweeTarts out of your beard and maybe I’ll give you a shot.”

They have been married now for 23 years, 11 months and seven days, he said.

All his life, Hogan said, he got into trouble by “comparing my insides to other people’s outsides,” or evaluating his own self-worth by measuring himself against other people.

“We are all average, but in our own special way,” Hogan said, encouraging students to find that thing inside of them that makes them special. And then follow it.

“Learn to do one thing well in life. Don’t fight the current, let the gentle stream of life carry you to whatever path you are supposed to be on.”

Since 2004, Hogan has taught all levels of biochemistry, molecular biology, genetics and general chemistry and is a nine-time teaching award recipient, including three Tanner Awards for excellence in undergraduate teaching.

As an adult, Hogan said, he has learned that whenever he begins to feel awful about himself, the best thing he can do is to be of service to others. That is what allows him to stay positive and happy.

After four years leading the Carolina Covenant program, Hogan said, he will return to the chemistry department to do the one job he has always loved: teaching science to amazing students. “It is really fantastic to have a job that isn’t a job,” he said.

At the end of his talk, Hogan shared the advice he got from Joe Collins, a man who founded a nonprofit organization in Guatemala that has built more than 1,400 homes for families that have been the victims of civil war and poverty.

“Joe passed away from cancer a few years ago, but he said to me one time, ‘Brian, you need to remember four things: Dream big. Go slow. Listen to others. And believe in yourself.’”

Hogan found Collins’ words so inspiring, and instructive, that he had them tattooed on his leg so he would be reminded of them every morning as he pulled on his pants.

“As you go off into this next phase of your life, I want you to know that it’s OK to be scared,” Hogan said.

Believing in yourself can be the hardest thing you have to do every day, Hogan said. But always remember to do it. It can calm the fear.