Dawn Staley Gives Pep Talk to U.Va. Graduates

May 16, 2009 — In speech-making, as in life, timing is everything.

In her valedictory address today to about 1,500 graduating University of Virginia students, parents and guests, alumna Dawn Staley, who thrice led the Cavalier women's basketball team to the NCAA Final Four, said economic and world conditions made it difficult for her to present an upbeat message to the Class of 2009.

"At a time when the world is in complete economic turmoil and our country is as close as it has ever come to reliving the Great Depression," Staley said, "I have the challenge of finding the words to give you graduates hope. That's a little intimidating."

Then she proceeded to do just that, telling the graduates that U.Va. gave them the selflessness, traditions, dignity, integrity and humility to make a go of it in uncertain times.

"We are armed and we are prepared," she said. "Your challenge is to believe this."

Before Staley spoke, President John T. Casteen III accepted the Class of 2009 gift, a check for $220,000, representing pledges by 56 percent of the class. The donors choose where their gifts will go, he said, noting that a number of them will be directed toward AccessUVA, the University's financial aid program.

Awards were given to members of the Class of 2009, as well as two longtime University employees. The complete list is available here.

Because of iffy weather, Valedictory Exercises were moved from the Lawn to John Paul Jones Arena for the first time. Perhaps it was fitting that Staley, who had spent her U.Va. career in University Hall, was able to address the graduates in the handsome new arena.

One of five children in a working-class family in tough North Philadelphia, Staley said she discovered at age 8 that basketball was her passion. After a stellar high school career, many colleges courted her, but it was U.Va. coach Debbie Ryan who won her over.

"When Debbie introduced me to the University of Virginia, it wasn't its rich history or strong academic tradition that impressed me," she said. "It was Debbie's talks of championships and of creating a legacy that I could actually leave that sealed the deal.

"Make no mistake: I came to the University of Virginia to play basketball."

Staley, 39, is widely considered the best woman basketball player ever to emerge from the University. After her U.Va. career, she played professionally in the WNBA. While still on the Charlotte Sting roster, she began an eight-year run as the head basketball coach at Temple University in her hometown.

In 1996, she founded the Dawn Staley Foundation, which offers after-school programs for at-risk youth in Philadelphia. Along the way, she won three Olympic gold medals as a member of U.S. women's basketball teams. And this past May, she surprised college basketball watchers by taking the head coaching job at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, where, she said, her foundation will soon launch more after-school programs.

In 2006, the U.Va. Women's Center presented her with its Distinguished Alumna Award.

But when she first arrived at U.Va., Staley wondered how she'd survive four years. She felt ill at ease in unfamiliar surroundings. She nearly lost her eligibility the first year and finally had to ask for help.

"I resisted change, assimilation and help with everything I had in me for as long as I could," she said. "My urban upbringing had shaped me into a guarded, proud and extremely shy person. I expressed myself on the court, and it was there that I felt most comfortable."

It wasn't until her third year, she said, when everything – academics, basketball, teamwork– clicked into place. U.Va.'s values, she said, "became my armor and ultimately defined my character." She also went to football games, learned the fight song – and realized the power of being a Wahoo.

"Never before had I been a part of a collective group, with such pride and love for that which was theirs," she said.

Her college career ended with the final buzzer of U.Va.'s game against Stanford in the Final Four in 1992. Staley recalled fighting tears but meeting the eyes of each member of the opposing team as they shook hands.

"I let go of a shallow smile silently acknowledging just how far I had come, as just three years prior there would be no way I would shake a victor's hand in acknowledgement of my own defeat," she recalled.

Channeling President Obama, Staley reminded the graduates they need audacity: "You have to have the audacity to attempt those feats you fear most, and to stand in the face of discomfort and smile your brightest smile," she said.

And if the worst happens? Pick yourself up and try again.

"You're a Wahoo," Staley said. "We bend, but we do not break."

– Marian Anderfuren