Messages of Courage and Love Resound as Final Exercises 2023 Wraps

May 21, 2023 By Alice Berry, Alice Berry,

The second group of the University of Virginia’s graduates – 4,700 students from 11 schools –walked the Lawn and received their diplomas Sunday. That ceremony came 24 hours after almost 3,200 graduates from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences took their degrees, and capped the University’s 194th Final Exercises.

On Sunday, the University awarded 1,737 baccalaureate degrees, 2,524 graduate degrees and 447 law and medical degrees. The crowd, gathered in front of Old Cabell Hall and stretching north along the Lawn nearly to the Rotunda, amounted to an estimated 20,000 people, including the graduates.

One of those was Nancy Griffith-Cochran, who said she had always wanted to go to UVA. An educator and assistant principal in Loudoun County, she enrolled in the UVA School of Education and Human Development’s education administration doctoral program. Most of her classes were held in Northern Virginia, plus two on-Grounds residencies.

She said she was eager to come back to Grounds. “I was not going to miss the Lawn or the actual, full commencement,” Griffith-Cochran said. Especially not since her daughters had urged her to get her degree in style, carrying a bevy of balloons like so many other graduates.

Griffith-Cochran had studied history as an undergraduate at the College of William & Mary – where UVA’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, had himself gone to college. Coming to UVA, then, felt like a natural next educational step.

“There’s a big connection between the two schools and the quest for knowledge,” Griffith-Cochran said.

The Class of 2023’s experiences at UVA included canceled in-person classes due to COVID, a limited return to Grounds as the pandemic started to ease, and the tragic shooting deaths of three students in November.

In both Saturday’s and Sunday’s ceremonies, speakers acknowledged the losses of Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr., the three football student-athletes shot to death on Grounds by a fellow student as they returned from a field trip. Perry’s mother, Happy Perry, walked the Lawn Saturday in his place, joining the Arts & Sciences graduates.

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On Sunday, UVA President Jim Ryan also acknowledged undergraduate computer science student B. Yoon, who died after a two-year battle against cancer. Yoon’s family attended Sunday’s ceremonies.

Architectural historian and Vice Provost for Academic Outreach Louis Nelson addressed Sunday’s graduates from the School of Architecture, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, School of Continuing and Professional Studies, School of Education and Human Development, Darden School of Business, School of Engineering and Applied Science, School of Law, McIntire School of Commerce, School of Medicine, School of Nursing and School of Data Science.

Nelson mirrored comments from a day earlier recognizing the class’ resilience and bravery.

“Y’all are beautiful. And a little intimidating. You’re intimidating not just because there are so many of you, but because you are fierce and courageous,” Nelson said.

Ryan’s address echoed Nelson’s message about the hardships the class faced, and the grit needed to overcome them.

“I hope and trust that you will remember the moments of joy as well as the challenges, and that you will take from both that there is much joy to be found in this life, and that you can do hard things,” Ryan said.

Sunday marked the end of UVA’s three-day Final Exercises. Philanthropist and UVA alumna Jacqueline Novogratz delivered remarks during Friday’s Valedictory Exercises, and on Saturday, UVA Director of Athletics Carla Williams addressed Arts & Sciences graduates.

Williams encouraged students to make their own choices about their futures.

“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 of 2023.

Williams acknowledged that all the graduates have exciting futures ahead of them.

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

On Sunday, Samantha Nicholson, a mechanical engineering graduate, explicitly acknowledged female scientists and mathematicians who came before her. Her cap was adorned with their names in sparkling script.

“I’m so excited,” Nicholson said of her graduation. “It’s been a long four years with COVID and everything, but I’m glad that we’re able to do this today.”

In his remarks Sunday, Nelson said that being a positive force required “seeing the gap between the ideal and the real,” one of the lessons he imparted on the thousands of Hoos gathered on the Lawn. Nelson said the University’s ongoing pursuit of knowledge is not an end in and of itself.

“At UVA we are truth-tellers, courageous enough to go toe-to-toe with our own demons,” Nelson said. “Do we have the courage to see the gap between the ideal and the real both in the past and in the present? This is hard work, yes. But UVA is worth it. And I daresay, America is worth it.”

He acknowledged graduates from each of the schools, calling on them to use the skills they learned to contribute to a better world.

“To be a graduate of the University of Virginia is to be deployed toward democracy. You are courageous love warriors, forged in the crucible of COVID, and now commissioned to lead this nation towards the ideals to which we all aspire. Go forth and spread democracy. Congratulations on your graduation.”

Media Contact

Alice Berry

University News Associate Office of University Communications