As the University of Virginia returns to its traditional, in-person format for Finals Weekend on May 20 through 22, graduation events will feature keynote speakers who have become well known to the UVA community.
Ralph Sampson, the most decorated basketball player in Cavalier history, will be the guest speaker for Valedictory Exercises on May 20 at 3 p.m. in John Paul Jones Arena.
UVA history professor Claudrena Harold will speak at the May 21 ceremony for graduates of the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, following the 10 a.m. procession down the Lawn.
All other schools will participate in Final Exercises on May 22, which will feature speaker Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor in the School of Medicine who has played a major role in UVA’s response to COVID-19.
In case of severe weather, John Paul Jones Arena will serve as the backup location for both weekend ceremonies.
Individual school and department graduation ceremonies will be held during the afternoons, following Final Exercises on the Lawn.
As public health conditions continue to improve, masks will not be required for indoor or outdoor elements of the celebrations. UVA leaders strongly encourage everyone who attends Finals to be up to date on their COVID-19 vaccinations before traveling to Charlottesville, but will not impose a vaccination requirement. More details are available on UVA’s Major Events pages.
A closer look at the weekend’s speakers:
Ralph Sampson, May 20
Ralph Sampson Jr. is arguably the most heavily recruited college basketball prospect of his generation. He appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine six times in a span of less than four years. A 7-foot-4 phenom, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2012.
Playing center, he led the Cavaliers to an NIT title in 1980, an NCAA Final Four appearance in 1981 and an NCAA Elite Eight appearance in 1983. He earned three Naismith Awards as the National Player of the Year, only the second athlete to do so, and a pair of Wooden Awards. Drafted by the Houston Rockets as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1983 NBA draft, he was named NBA Rookie of the Year. Injuries eventually ended his professional career.
In 2002, Sampson was named to the Atlantic Coast Conference 50th Anniversary Men’s Basketball Team, a position that honored him as one of the 50 best basketball players in the history of the ACC.
He founded The Sampson Group, a consulting firm, in 2005. In 2006, he created the Winner’s Circle Community, an online community dedicated to providing a forum for open and informed communication. That same year, he also founded the Winner’s Circle Foundation, an organization to help young athletes achieve success. In addition, his Sampson Family Foundation includes the Sampson Basketball Academy.
Based on the motto, “It takes teamwork to make a dream work,” these organizations are devoted to motivational speaking, business development, and the support and mentoring of youth in education, career and social impact development.
Sampson has credited his small-town upbringing in Harrisonburg, as well as the love and support of his parents and high school basketball coach, for his success today.
Claudrena Harold, May 21
Harold, the Edward Stettinius Professor of History, currently chairs the Corcoran Department of History. She specializes in African American history, Black cultural politics and labor history, and earned her Ph.D. from University of Notre Dame. Among her courses, she has taught about the history of Black students on Grounds and about the evolution of African American music. She has received the Gordon F. Rainey, Jr. Award for Vigilance to the Student Experience and All-University Teaching Award.
Her books include “When Sunday Comes: Gospel Music in the Soul and Hip-Hop Eras,” published in 2020; “New Negro Politics in the Jim Crow South,” published in 2016; and her first book, “The Rise and Fall of the Garvey Movement in the Urban South, 1918-1942,” published in 2007. She has co-edited two volumes, “The Punitive Turn: New Approaches to Race and Incarceration,” published in 2013, and a book of essays, “Charlottesville 2017: The Legacy of Race and Inequity,” which was published with Louis Nelson, UVA’s vice provost for academic outreach, in 2018.
Harold and Kevin Everson, a UVA art professor and an experimental filmmaker, have worked on an ongoing collaborative film series, “Black Fire,” for about a decade that focuses on different aspects of Black experience on Grounds.
As a part of this process, she and Everson have written, produced and co-directed 10 short films. These films have screened at the National Gallery of Art, the Whitney Museum, and several international film festivals. The 2021 film “Pride” screened at the Glasgow Short Film Festival in March. “Black Bus Stop” was commemorated on Grounds with a plaque at the site. They finished shooting “Gospel Hill,” the 10th installment, in March.
“In addition to making art, we are fortunate to work closely with students,” she says on the Black Fire website.
A graduate of Temple University, Harold was a two-time first team all-Philadelphia Big 5 honoree in basketball (1994-97) and was inducted into the Temple Athletics Hall of Fame in 2010.
Dr. Taison Bell, May 22
Dr. Taison Bell, an assistant professor in the divisions of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and Infectious Diseases and International Health, directs the Medical Intensive Care Unit at UVA Health. Born in Boston and raised in Lynchburg, he graduated from UVA with a degree in African American and African studies, and he completed his medical degree at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University.
As a critical care and infectious diseases specialist, Bell has played a major role in UVA’s response to COVID-19 and is well regarded as a passionate clinician educator. Last year, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia gave him a “Rising Star” Outstanding Faculty Award, the highest honor the state bestows on faculty from all of Virginia’s private and public colleges and universities.
As medical director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit, Bell has cared for patients in UVA’s COVID units and assisted long-term care facilities in Central Virginia as they battled outbreaks.
He also helped shepherd a University- and communitywide effort to create and distribute personal protective equipment to frontline care providers and was instrumental in bringing a clinical trial to UVA that examined the effectiveness of remdesivir as a COVID-19 treatment. Based on the results from UVA and other trial locations, the federal Food and Drug Administration authorized remdesivir as the first treatment for COVID-19.
He also directs the UVA Summer Medical Leadership Program, a six-week enrichment program for 30 college undergraduates from underrepresented groups in medicine who are interested in pursuing medical careers. He is also widely recognized as a national leader in the field of health disparities and was recently recognized as one of the Top 40 Under 40 Leaders in Minority Health by the National Minority Quality Forum.
“I benefited so much from great educators who have always felt the most powerful tool I have is an ability to impart lessons to my team,” Bell said.
Bell trained in internal medicine at the Massachusetts General Hospital, where he was a chief resident. He subsequently completed an infectious disease fellowship at the combined Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospital program, followed by a critical care fellowship at the National Institutes of Health. He has also completed the executive MBA program at the UVA Darden School of Business.