A Day of Joyful Celebration and Remembrance for 2019 UVA Arts & Sciences Grads

A Day of Joyful Celebration and Remembrance for 2019 UVA Arts & Sciences Grads

The University of Virginia conferred the first of its 2019 degrees Saturday, to the joy of newly minted graduates of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and their families assembled on the Lawn on a warm, cloudy morning. 

About 3,050 Arts & Sciences students received their degrees, about half of the 7,090 awarded this year. Those include 2,701 bachelor’s degrees, 219 master’s degrees and 130 doctorate degrees. One hundred and twenty students from the College of Arts & Sciences earned baccalaureate degrees in three years, and five more College students did so in only two. Students in the University’s 10 other schools and the Data Science Institute will receive degrees in a second ceremony on Sunday.

Parents, family members and friends began to fill the Lawn early Saturday. Alumnus Harold Mitchell and his wife Lisa were there to watch his daughter, Madeline, earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in French. Next year, Madeline Mitchell will teach English in France. She is the last of the Richmond couple’s children to graduate from college.

“It’s surreal,” Lisa Mitchell said. “I feel like she will be going back to class, it’s hard to believe.”

A few rows behind the Mitchells, Simachew Desta and Abebech Abebé were eagerly anticipating their daughter Helen’s walk down the Lawn.

The couple moved to the United States from Ethiopia 38 years ago and raised their daughter in Fairfax. She became a “Double Hoo” Saturday, earning a master’s degree in statistics one year after completing her bachelor’s degree here.

“We are so proud,” Abebé said, showing pictures of Helen with a NCAA National Championship T-shirt beneath her graduation robes. She was in the Cavalier Marching Band for four years, her mother said, and cried tears of joy when the team won in April.

“She has loved UVA,” Abebé said. “She doesn’t want to leave.”

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The graduates on Saturday sported a number of highly decorated graduation caps.

Soon, strains of Pomp and Circumstance filled the air and thousands of graduates, clad in black robes and carrying colorful balloons, made their way from the Rotunda steps to the rows of chairs assembled in front of Old Cabell Hall.

UVA President Jim Ryan, celebrating his first Final Exercises as president, welcomed the crowd and thanked the Class of 2019 for the warm welcome this year. (Read the full text of Ryan’s remarks.)

“You are leaving this community stronger than you found it, and I have no doubt that you will make the world beyond UVA a better place,” Ryan said. “I also want to say a personal thanks for helping make this past year one I will never forget. It’s been a true joy and a sincere privilege to get to know many of you and to serve as your president.”

He asked the students to stand and thank their families – prompting a huge roar of gratitude from the assembled graduates – and later recognized the more than 400 students in this year’s class who, like Ryan himself, are the first in their families to graduate from college.

“As a fellow first-generation student, I want to say how delighted I am for all of you and how much I admire your accomplishments,” he said.

Dr. B. Cameron Webb, an alumnus of the College and a professor in the School of Medicine, gave the keynote address on Saturday.

University Rector Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III focused his remarks on hope, especially the hope that the new graduates can bring as they serve their communities.

“We hope that whatever path you choose in life, you never fail to remember the importance of service to your fellow human beings – because it is your calling after earning a degree from this University, as well as the genesis of everything we hope for each of you,” Conner said. (Read the full text of Conner’s remarks.)

Conner also introduced the day’s keynote speaker. Dr. B. Cameron Webb, a physician and lawyer, is an assistant professor of medicine and public health sciences at UVA’s School of Medicine and serves as the director of health policy and equity in the Department of Public Health Sciences. He is also a UVA alumnus, graduating in 2005 from the College of Arts & Sciences as an Echols Scholar.

He was recently named to the National Minority Quality Forum’s “40 Under 40 Leaders in Health Awards” list, served on several nonprofit boards and is currently a member of the boards of directors of Doctors for America and the Boys and Girls Club of Central Virginia. His wife, Dr. Leigh-Ann Webb, is among the weekend’s graduates, earning an MBA from UVA’s Darden School of Business on Sunday.

Among other accomplishments, Webb was selected for the yearlong White House Fellowship Program in 2016, one of the most prestigious appointments for leadership and public service. He served during both the Obama and Trump administrations and worked on initiatives including President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper” campaign, launched to address opportunity gaps for boys and young men of color, as well as the White House Health Care Team and the White House Drug Pricing Task Force.

During his speech, Webb said self-reflection and an unwavering commitment to his values and beliefs helped him during the transition between two different presidential administrations, and during many other transitions in his life.

Encouraging students to reflect on their current transition point, Webb recalled a quote from his own commencement speaker – alumna Dr. Vivian Pinn, who was the only African American in her 1967 School of Medicine class and went on to direct the Office of Research on Women’s Health at the National Institutes of Health.

Pinn, he said, reminded graduates: “We can learn from the past, we can live in the present and we can keep an eye on the future.”

To illustrate the idea, Webb held up a nickel, featuring UVA founder Thomas Jefferson on one side and his home, Monticello, on the other.

“On the obverse, the front side, you are staring in the face of Mr. Jefferson and the illustrious University he founded. That’s where you were during your college days.
On the reverse, the back side, you are looking at Monticello,” he said. “That’s the manifestation of the life Mr. Jefferson had the vision, the creativity and the drive to create for himself. That’s where you’re headed – where you will be.”

The most important side, though, might be the nickel’s edge, Webb said.

“It’s completely unassuming, seemingly only a transition space from one side to the next. But when you stand that nickel up, or spin it around, you realize that there’s actually some substance there,” he said. “Today – in this moment – I want you to realize that you are standing on the edge of a nickel, and that there’s a lot of power and potential in that space.”

He offered graduates five pieces of advice for making their transitions successful – be authentic, find mentors, iterate, cross-pollinate and seek out diversity of thought, and lift as you climb – “reaching back and lifting someone up who is on the way up behind you.”

And, he said, remember.

“Remember how you walked onto these Grounds surrounded by complete strangers, but you left with new family members and lifelong friends,” he said, citing several friends and his wife, whom he met on Grounds. “Remember how you came in full of potential but walked out as scholars and innovators and activists and champions. Remember that this chapter of your life is closing, but this ceremony is called commencement because this just the beginning. Remember that you are just getting started.”

Following Webb’s address, Ryan welcomed Arts & Sciences Dean Ian Baucom to the podium to officially confer this year’s degrees.

Candidates for doctors of philosophy, master’s and bachelor’s degrees rose in groups, each roar louder than the last.

Ryan took the podium again, giving closing remarks and, in a sweet moment, requesting that the crowd give his daughter Phebe – who turned 13 Saturday – a birthday shout-out. Then, echoing Webb, he sent the Class of 2019 off with a final injunction to “remember what happened here.”

“When I say that, I’m not just talking about remembering a specific class you took or an event that happened, although I hope you do,” he said. “Instead, I want you to remember the feeling of being here, in this place, with these people, and to carry it with you.”

Remember, he said, how it felt to be surrounded by such diverse, talented and compassionate classmates, to explore, to learn and to do it all with your friends by your side.

“Remember what it felt like to build bridges, reaching out to get to know someone or someplace different, and how it ended up changing you,” he said. “Remember how it felt to serve others, and the satisfaction that came from devoting your time and energy to something bigger than yourself.

“If you remember all of this, I have no doubt that you will carry with you the very best of this place as you face, with courage and purpose, the road ahead, a road which will be, at various turns, be beautiful, tragic, joyous and challenging. And should that road ever lead you back to Charlottesville, please know that we will leave the lights on for you.”

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McGregor McCance

Associate Vice President for Communications and Executive Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications