Those who packed the University of Virginia’s Lawn on Friday afternoon hoping that actor and comedian Ed Helms would kick off Finals Weekend with a heavy dose of humor were undoubtedly delighted with his keynote address at Valedictory Exercises.
And Helms left ’em cheering when he closed his remarks by bringing the Hullabahoos – a student a cappella group who he has some history with – on stage to accompany his finalé, a rousing and playful gospel version of “This Little Light of Mine.” Those seeking some substance from his remarks were not disappointed, either. Between the rapid-fire jokes and the big finish, Helms urged graduates to resist being defined by others, and similarly to resist the temptation to easily label others.
The ceremony, held under gathering clouds, also offered humorous and moving remarks from the class president, the presentation of a class gift of nearly $500,000 and the bestowing of several awards to graduating students and other University community members and organizations.
Helms – familiar to the graduating class for his television roles in “The Office” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart,” and film credits including the popular “Hangover” series – quickly won over his audience with a stream of on-target humor skewering University and local traditions, including streaking, secret societies and U.Va.’s “absurdly large” diplomas.
“What in God’s name are you compensating for?” he quipped. “And where will you hang that?”
He then turned the skewer toward himself. “I am speaking to you today because I am a very brilliant and important person. How do I know this? Well, because I am a celebrity. And celebrities are by definition brilliant and important, according to my agent. And of course, also deeply humble, according to my publicist,” he deadpanned.
Turning serious, he added, “These are some ways people try to define me. Here are some of the ways that people are trying to define you.”
After listing several supposed traits of the Millennial generation – uninterested in the burden of ownership, obsessed with exercise, nutrition and apps and data that track their health – he declared, “At best, these generational descriptors are just an absurd reduction. As you go out into the world, you’ll find that people are always quick to define you – to pigeonhole you, to whittle you down to their preconceived notions.
“Which brings me to my point: Never let others define you. Define yourselves.”
He then turned to Rolling Stone magazine’s since-retracted article alleging a “rape culture” at U.Va. “Now I know the U.Va. community has some experience with being defined by outsiders. It has been said that a rolling stone gathers no moss. I would add that sometimes a Rolling Stone also gathers no verifiable facts, or even the tiniest morsels of journalistic integrity,” he said, drawing enthusiastic applause.
“Rolling Stone tried to define you this year. As a result, not only was this community thrown deep into turmoil, but the incredibly important struggle to address sexual violence on campuses nationwide was suddenly more confusing than ever and needlessly set back.”
After listing several other current-events examples of such unfair labeling, he allowed, “Sometimes these can also be great opportunities to examine and learn about ourselves.”
Noting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s argument that “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function,” he came back to the Rolling Stone situation.
“That’s precisely what you all did. This community didn’t fall for the fallacy that just because Rolling Stone was wrong, everything here must be perfectly peachy,” he said. “You all had the courage to understand you can be outraged at Rolling Stone, and still ask ourselves some hard questions. When sexual violence does occur in our community, do we have the best possible protocols and resources available to our students? And U.Va. is charging forward to answer those questions and you should be proud of that.”
He urged the soon-to-be graduates to continue to “question the ideas and institutions we cherish most.”
“It doesn’t matter where you fall on the ideological spectrum,” he said. “What matters is that you approach the world with humility, intellectual honestly and an ongoing effort to understand the whole picture.”
As Helms later built toward a crescendo, the Hullabahoos filed on stage. This was not the first time they had encountered each other. On the television comedy “The Office,” helms played Andy Bernard, a preppy young associate at the fictional Dunder Mifflin firm who, in one episode, invited his college a cappella group to the office. The group was portrayed by the Hullabahoos, who on Friday again arranged themselves behind Helms.
They hummed as Helms declared, voice rising dramatically, “Ladies and gentlemen of the University of Virginia Class of 2015, each and every one of you has a vibrant, courageous soul and a depth of power, creativity and wisdom you are only just beginning to tap into. That is your light! It is the light within you! And you have to let it shine, because when you do, I promise it will illuminate you, your family, your friends your community, your country and the entire world. Don’t let that light die. Every day, wake up and say to yourself, this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine! This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine!”
He then led the entire ensemble in the familiar Southern spiritual rouser, bringing the audience to its collective feet.
Earlier in the ceremony, Ben J. Colalillo and Emily Anne M. Self, the co-chairs of the Class Giving Committee, presented U.Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan with a mock check in the amount of $495,047.
Members of the graduating class were invited to make a parting gift to entities on Grounds – including academic departments, student organizations and the AccessUVA financial aid program – that had made an impact on them during their years on Grounds. As of earlier this week, 61 percent of the class had made gifts, including gifts totaling $200,000 received in “the last couple of days,” Colalillo said.
Sullivan thanked the class. “The 2,068 – and counting – members of the class who participated in the class giving campaign with donations and pledges will leave an enduring mark on the University,” she said. “It will strengthen us, and will remind us of the generous spirit of the Class of 2015.”
The class also expressed its appreciation for those who helped them along the way, through Blake D. Griggs, the class vice president. He thanked the University’s service staff, administrators, faculty and family members, “who helped make all this possible.”
The president of the Class of 2015, Will Laverack, closed the ceremony with a poignant and occasionally humorous farewell address, highlighting the experiences the class had absorbed during its time on Grounds.
“Over time, the University has become not only where we are, but also who we are,” he said.
The soon-to-be graduates have thoroughly enjoyed their time at U.Va., but are ready to move on, which he said was both an occasion for celebration and for sadness.
“While the University has given us wings, it has also given us roots,” he said. “And for many of us it hurts to fly away, especially from the people and things we’ve grown to love. It tears at the heartstrings that we have worked for so long to tightly weave. But they will not break, and we don’t have to relinquish them. They can’t be cut by a diploma, or a boxed-up room, or a new job, or a new city, or new friends. Ultimately, no matter where we go or how far apart we are, they will bind us with this place and with each other eternally.”
He continued: “I think it’s quite fitting that our experience here began with an earthquake. Indeed, as a class and as a University we have faced challenges that have shaken us. I know there is frustration – maybe even some anger – out there, but I also know that it is outweighed by belief – belief in who we are as individuals, as a class, and as a University; belief in our ability to weather any storm; and belief in the progress that we relentlessly pursue.”