The Power of Belief Echoes Throughout the Lawn as Final Exercises 2022 Wraps

May 22, 2022 By Andrew Ramspacher, Andrew Ramspacher,

On an 85-degree, sun-soaked morning, Dr. Taison Bell took the large crowd assembled on the Lawn – many of them using their programs as fans – to a snowy afternoon when he was a child in Lynchburg.

Long before he was a decorated figure in the medical community at the University of Virginia and the keynote speaker for Sunday’s Final Exercises, Bell was a 6-year-old struggling to climb the slick neighborhood sled hill.

“I just couldn’t do it,” Bell said. “I was so frustrated, I sat down in tears at the bottom of the hill.”

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Taison Bell, speaking from a podium to a crowd of seated graduates in caps, gestures with closed fists
Alumnus Dr. Taison Bell, an infectious disease expert at UVA, delivered Sunday’s keynote speech, using a medical metaphor about how both pressure and resistance can guide graduates’ successes. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

That’s when Bell’s grandmother called him inside and instilled in him the message he delivered to UVA’s graduating class of 2022.

“She noticed that each time I tried to go up the hill, I was so focused on the top I wasn’t looking down to see where my feet were going,” Bell said. “She said I could stay in if I wanted, but if I went back out, I should focus on where to take my first step. And then the next. And then the next.

“I went back out and tried again, this time recalling the many times I had climbed that hill in fair weather, remembering where some of the rocks, roots and divots were where I could get a foothold. I didn’t make it on the first try, but I kept trying, and I finally made it to the top. “

Belief can go a long way.

From behind a balloon shaped like a cow, the graduates listen intently to the speaker
More than 4,500 students in 11 schools received their degrees Sunday. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“You may have to try again; you may have to try in a different way; the goal may change,” Bell said. “But belief will make you try. It’s what makes you take those next steps up the hill. It is immeasurable.”

Sunday’s ceremony put a bow on Final Exercises Weekend at UVA, as more than 4,500 graduates from 11 schools – 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 – walked the Lawn.

On the steps of the Rotunda, a woman sings into a microphone, while a graduating student dances along
The vibes were high for Sunday’s Final Exercises under sunny skies. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The 193rd such series of ceremonies at the University began Friday with UVA basketball legend Ralph Sampson as the featured speaker for the Valedictory Exercises, continued Saturday with Final Exercises for the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (Claudrena Harold, the Edward Stettinius Professor of History and department chair, addressed the audience) and then concluded Sunday with Bell, an alumnus and an assistant professor in the divisions of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, and Infectious Diseases and International Health and director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at UVA Health, in the spotlight.

UVA rector Whit Clement, before introducing him, noted, “You may have seen Dr. Bell interviewed on the news during the pandemic. He is nationally recognized expert in infectious diseases.”

The procession begins down the UVA Lawn, filled with spectators
UVA President Jim to Ryan to the class of 2022: “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.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

The overarching theme to this weekend on Grounds was the symbolism found in each gathering. Once taken for granted, these scenes – filled with smiling students and faculty with their families and friends on the Lawn – weren’t guaranteed in the recent past, as the coronavirus pandemic forced Final Exercises online in 2020 and then caused a change in venue (from the Lawn to Scott Stadium) last year.

Though there were online classes and time away from Charlottesville in between, Sahil Parikh, a New Jersey native who graduated from the McIntire School, was grateful for notable experiences at both ends of his UVA career.

As a first-year student, he was part of a raucous watch party at John Paul Jones Arena as the men’s basketball team captured the national championship.

“It was so loud in there,” Parikh said. “It was great.”

Before Sunday’s ceremony, he posed for pictures with his father in front of the Rotunda.

“I think the culture’s really collaborative here, which I really like,” Parikh said. “Obviously, the scenery is amazing. I think I would have enjoyed any college, but I love UVA and I have all these memories here.”

Jordan Althoff, who graduated with a kinesiology degree, walked the Lawn with a firefighter helmet to signify her work with the local Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department.

“COVID was pretty chaotic,” Althoff said, reflecting on her student experience. “I think everyone can probably say that. It made me realize what was important, and that was getting to see my family more often and being a part of something a little bit bigger, like volunteering at Seminole Trail.”

A smiling Jordan Althoff wears a firefighter helmet and holds her grad cap
Jordan Althoff, who graduated with a kinesiology degree, holds her cap while a firefighter’s helmet – signifying her work with Seminole Trail Volunteer Fire Department – rests on her head. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

It’s there where she gained invaluable lessons while performing under pressure.

“Pressure and communicating with people in really stressful situations is a really important life skill,” she said. “As a firefighter, you go and you help people in their hardest of times. They’re really going through it and you’re there to help them in any way that you can.”

The kinds of pressure Althoff faced is the kind of pressure that Bell said can unlock an individual’s potential. He was speaking from experience.

Bell credited his 11th-grade civics teacher for improving his grades, encouraging him to take more advanced classes, and eventually for him applying to UVA.

“I was accepted with the help of her letter of recommendation and some late-breaking all-A report cards,” he said. “So a little pressure definitely benefited me. ... Ms. Frazier opened up my future and I was able to succeed in an environment that more often suffocates potential.”

Two graduates in a crowd beam happily at each other
Smile, you’re a UVA graduate! (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

UVA President Jim Ryan, speaking to the graduates Sunday, was high on the potential of the 2022 class.

“You are leaving this community stronger than you found it,” Ryan said, “and I have no doubt that you will make the world beyond UVA a better place.”

Said Bell: “When you’re feeling like you’re stuck, or that you’re not good enough, or you’re not deserving, or you’re not worthy to take on the challenges of our time, I want you to regroup, remember that you have a family, a University, and a community that believes in you. And I want you to take those next steps.”

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Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications