Bright Smiles Outweigh Damp Feet as U.Va. Celebrates 180th Final Exercises

May 17, 2009 — After its hard work and despite the economic uncertainty it faces, the University of Virginia's Class of 2009 was not about to let a little rain spoil its party on Sunday.

The colors of the balloons and flowers they carried and the self-decorated mortarboards and academic regalia they wore for U.Va.'s 180th Final Exercises stood in bright contrast to the gray skies overhead and the mud under (and in many cases, engulfing) their feet. Speakers smiled through spontaneous, joyful outbursts from their audience. Everywhere, cameras were at the ready to capture graduates' and families' hugs and happy faces.

"As long as I get to walk down the Lawn, it could be snowing and I won't care," said Christine Thrash, a Richmond native who received a degree in finance and accounting from the McIntire School of Commerce.

It didn't snow, but showers fell intermittently and a cool wind dropped temperatures into the unseasonable mid-50s.

Finals speaker J. Harvie Wilkinson III, a federal appeals court judge who himself walked the Lawn in 1973 as a graduate of the Law School, opened his remarks by commending the University's decision not to shift the ceremony indoors.

"A little rain is not going to keep us off the Lawn, is it?" he asked the graduates.

"Nooooo!" came the emphatic answer.

Wilkinson, who was the first student member of the Board of Visitors, also defended another U.Va. tradition – the geographic diversity of its student body. Some state legislators have sought to mandate that the University admit a proportion of in-state students greater than the current two-thirds, but Wilkinson noted that it was founder Thomas Jefferson's vision that the University be a democratic training ground for future leaders from across the young nation.

"The greatness of this institution will depend not only on attracting marvelous students from our home state, but the best students from around the country and increasingly from around the world.

"We should never turn our backs on this vision," he declared.

Wilkinson's stance against the tide of political populism meshed well with the rest of his speech, in which he called upon the graduates to spurn the paths that others lay out for them and pursue their own passions.

He described his evolving relationship with his father, who he said was his "north star" as a youth. But as he matured, he and his father often disagreed on the major decisions in his life – where to go to college, whether to run for Congress, various career decisions – before they finally reconciled before his father's death in 1990.

"My father and I came to a mutual affection, each on our own terms," he said. "And so must you do with the powerful presences in your own life.

"… Loving yourself means developing your own innate gifts and talents for the betterment of your fellow beings," he said.

In his remarks, University President John T. Casteen III also referred to Jefferson's vision for the University; specifically, in its charge to create an "aristocracy of talent," regardless of students' economic backgrounds.

Casteen saluted two graduating students – Chalais Massard and Kyle Mihalcoe – who, supported by the University's AccessUVA financial-aid program, completed successful academic careers. Massard founded 'Hoos for Open Access, a student group to advocate for socio-economic diversity, while Mihalcoe has served as a summer orientation leader and a member of Virginia Ambassadors, a group which spreads the word among high school students that a U.Va. education is possible regardless of a family's financial resources.

Earlier in the morning, Denee Moore huddled with her parents inside her Lawn room, monitoring the Weather Channel and enjoying a few pre-graduation snacks.

The Petersburg native, who is headed to medical school after earning degrees in psychology and chemistry, was a peer adviser in the Office of African American Affairs, helped recruit minority students and volunteered with the Madison House Holiday Sharing program.

"Our world perception has definitely broadened," she said as she reflected on her time on Grounds. "We're much more knowledgeable about the world around us."

A few minutes later, just outside the Rotunda, classmate Andrew Davis, a chemistry major from Virginia Beach, shared similar thoughts.

He recalled several research projects he took part in, collaborating with peers, graduate students and faculty members to accomplish more than he could have by himself.

"I've definitely become much more aware of the community," he said, "working together and being part of a greater thing."

So, with the pride of four years worth of lessons learned, inside and outside the classroom, a little rain was not going to slow him, either.

"The rain could be a lot worse," he said. "It could also be 90 or 100 degrees. This isn't so bad."

A Few Firsts

Though Final Exercises are always steeped in tradition, Sunday's ceremonies marked several "firsts."

Two degrees were awarded for the first time: the doctorate of nursing practice from the School of Nursing, and the first master's degrees in public policy from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy.

In all, 6,280 degrees were awarded.

In another first, some graduating students wore lavender stoles, identifying themselves as members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community and their allies.

The LGBT Resource Center at U.Va. gave out the stoles to 35 students at its inaugural lavender graduation ceremony and annual spring garden party on May 1.

Heather Welborn and Alvin Valdez, both fourth-year students and members of the LGBT Resource Center Operating Board, suggested the idea after attending the annual "Creating Change" conference, organized by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force.

"The students were very excited to bring this recognition to U.Va. after hearing about the success of lavender ceremonies at other institutions," Ed Warwick, director of U.Va.'s LGBT center, said.

He said he hopes the lavender stoles bring greater visibility to a hidden and often invisible minority community at U.Va.

"By wearing the stoles, it provides students the opportunity to be recognized not only for what they've done, but also for who they are," he said. "We are recognizing students for taking on leadership roles within the LGBT community and for having the courage, knowledge and ability to navigate their time at the University as themselves and a member of this community."

The Early Birds

Memo to parents of the Class of 2010: With more than 30,000 people expected to attend graduation every year, if you want the best seats, plan to arrive before dawn.

Carl Rush of Alexandria got up at 4 a.m. and was on the Lawn by 5:45. He was in the first row of spectator seating, to the east side of the corridor for the academic procession, to see his daughter, Emily, graduate.

"The only thing worth getting up for is turkey hunting," he quipped, before admitting that getting up early on Sundays is actually second nature. He's a Presbyterian minister.

The front-row seats on the other side of the aisle went even earlier; 2005 graduate Greg Weingart of Virginia Beach snagged them for his family at 5:30 a.m. in hopes of spotting his sister, Diana.

Working Overtime

Facilities Management employees take great pride in preparing the Grounds for graduation, polishing them to a shine in the weeks leading up to the big weekend. Grass is reseeded, fresh paint is applied, and perhaps most visibly, tens of thousands of chairs are set up and aligned just so.

But heavy overnight rains left a substantial puddle in the seat of each chair.

At 7 a.m., squads of Facilities Management employees were painstakingly wiping down every chair on the lower Lawn – only to have fresh showers undo all of their back-breaking work. Nonetheless, they kept at it until the procession started.