Carla Williams Encourages Graduates To Fight for Themselves, Feel for Others

May 20, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, Bryan McKenzie,

Helium-filled Mylar sharks, bees, dolphins and dinosaurs danced and battled above more than 3,000 University of Virginia graduates Saturday morning, the bright, shiny colors belying the somber strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” as the Class of 2023 descended the Rotunda steps and walked the Lawn for Final Exercises.

A total of 2,753 bachelor’s, 250 master’s and 161 doctoral degrees were earned by College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences graduates who strolled past friends, family and the University community in the traditional procession.

For most, the ceremony capped a four-year academic career that saw in-person classes canceled and moved online due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, a limited return to on-Grounds living and classes in 2021, and the tragic shooting deaths of three fellow students in November.

“I’m just so – I don’t know. It hasn’t hit me yet,” said Anthony Asuncion, clutching a cluster of bright balloons prior to his Lawn walk. “I can’t believe I survived it, and I can’t believe it’s over.”

For Asuncion, the four years he spent gaining his bachelor’s degree in biostatistics were also spent learning about himself. Around his neck, in colors that rivaled those of the balloons he held, was a stole representing his Asian Pacific Islander Desi American heritage and numerous   cords representing clubs and accomplishments. One of those cords represented his identity as a gay man.

“It was overwhelming at first, but I discovered that there are so many ways to find yourself at this University,” he said. “I came in feeling like I was so different from everyone, but I realized that people didn’t care – they just accepted you. I had a lot of firsts. I changed majors. I had my first relationship, my first breakup and my first heartache. There were so many challenges and so many changes in my life, but I feel like I found a home.”

Related Story

Asuncion and others in the Class of 2023 faced many challenges and UVA President Jim Ryan recognized those while welcoming the estimated 18,000 friends, family and graduates who crowded the Lawn ceremonies.

“I’d like to offer my sincere congratulations and gratitude to the talented and passionate Class of 2023,” Ryan said. “You have had experiences like few others. Your time here, due to COVID and the tragedy last November, could not have been what you were expecting, but you rose to the challenge with grace and courage.”

UVA Rector Whittington W. Clement commended the class for its strength and resilience.

“There were heartaches and tragedies. For two years now, I have been intimately acquainted with all the details,” Clement said, noting both the pandemic and the November loss of three students to gun violence. “Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. – we continue to mourn their loss with their families, their friends, and our whole community. We will not forget. Ever.”

Keynote speaker Carla Williams, a UVA vice president and the director of athletics, shared with the graduates two lessons she has learned through sports that help to make the most of opportunities.

She said they should not wait for someone else’s validation. “If you want to follow a path that has been painstakingly paved by the sacrifices of others, follow it. If you want to blaze a new trail, blaze it. If you want to make a difference, make it. You get to decide and when you decide, you will have opposition,” she told the class.

It’s also important to feel for others, she said. “Empathy is a person’s ability to share and understand the experiences of others, and maybe that’s why it takes courage to display empathy,” Williams said. “We don’t always want to understand someone else’s experiences and we don’t always want to share in someone else’s experiences, because we know some experiences come with great pain and with great sacrifice. In other words, it sometimes takes courage to show you care about the suffering of others.”

Williams pointed to the student-led Nov. 14 impromptu vigil on the Lawn for the slain students as an example of true empathy.

“Thousands of students, faculty, staff and community members came together in a show of empathy I have never seen in-person before, and probably will never see again. Nothing else mattered that night – not race, not religion, not socioeconomic status, not political party, not policy differences,” she said. “Please do not forget what we have been through together and may it compel you to show you care about the suffering and the experiences of others.”

Williams said the Class of 2023 is filled with people of different backgrounds, different histories and different goals, but she bade the graduates to do their best, for themselves and others.

“Each of you have your own story, your own journey,” she said. “Do not leave anything untapped. And I challenge you to be a positive force for good for everyone.”

Media Contact

Bethanie Glover

Deputy University Spokesperson