President Jim Ryan’s Remarks to the Class of 2021

President Jim Ryan standing at a podium during final exercises giving a speech

At the conclusion of each ceremony, Ryan reminded graduates that no matter where they go, they will find a home at UVA, where “we will leave the lights on for you.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Editor’s note: UVA President Jim Ryan spoke to graduates of the Class of 2021 during each of the five Final Exercises ceremonies held over the weekend. Here are his opening and closing remarks, as prepared.

Mr. Rector, members of the Board of Visitors, graduates, colleagues, family, friends – welcome.

My name is Jim Ryan, and in addition to being the president of UVA, I am the host for today’s ceremony, and I will also officially award the degrees. It’s exciting to think that we are sharing a unique moment in UVA history: You are graduating in Scott Stadium, and I am fulfilling a lifelong dream – to be on the Jumbotron, in the endzone of Scott Stadium, with a football.

I have to be honest with you: I feel like this moment is a bit miraculous. Not because you’re graduating – we all expected that. But given all of the stops and starts we have had to endure, the plans made and the plans scrapped, hopes raised and hopes dashed, just to get to this moment. Believe me when I say I could not be happier or more grateful to be here, right now, with all of you. If you feel the same way, please let me know.

Today marks the end of our 192nd academic session. These Final Exercises are the University’s most joyful occasion, at least since the men’s basketball team won the national championship.

… Before we begin, I would like to recognize members of our leadership team who have retired or who are taking on new roles: Pat Lampkin, vice president for student affairs; Allen Groves, dean of students; Craig Benson, dean of the School of Engineering; Ila Berman, dean of the School of Architecture; Betsey Daley, associate vice president for state government relations and special assistant to the president; and David Wilkes, dean of the School of Medicine. Each of these leaders has shaped this university in profound ways, and I am grateful to them for their service. Please join me in a round of applause.

… Our music today is provided by the U.S Army Training and Doctrine Command Band, under the direction of Treg Ancelet. Please join me in a round of applause for them, as well as for the members of the Army ROTC who presented the colors.

I would like to congratulate and thank all the parents and grandparents, brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, family and friends in the audience today. Together, you have supported these graduates in countless ways – including financially, emotionally and gastronomically. You have helped pay tuition, you have offered encouragement and you have fed them when they are home on break. My guess is that some of you may still be helping out with laundry. Today is your day, too, which is why I would like to ask all the graduates to stand, turn toward the audience and give a round of applause to those who helped you on this journey.

I would also like to thank the staff who work hard all year, and who have worked tirelessly to make graduation special for all involved. And I’d like to thank the faculty, who have served not simply as teachers, but also as mentors and friends. Please join me in giving our faculty and staff a round of applause.

Finally, and most importantly, congratulations to the Class of 2021. I hope and trust that you will look back on your time here as among the most important, enjoyable, engaging and transformative experiences of your lives. 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.

I also want to say a personal thanks for your patience, for your strength, and for your service and leadership, especially this past year. I have seen this class step up in countless ways that have brought joy, support and comfort to your classmates and to our entire community. For your selfless actions, generosity, humor and creativity, which brought light to Grounds even during our most challenging moments: Thank you. It has been a true privilege to serve as your president.

I will have a few more words to share with you at the end of the ceremony. But for now, let us begin this ancient and honorable ritual, through which we shall recognize and welcome you into the company of superbly educated citizen-leaders.   

We are fortunate to have a strong and tight-knit community of alumni whose time on Grounds profoundly shaped their lives. And I’m grateful that so many of those alumni have done so much to give others the same experience.

Those of you who graduate today have benefitted from the generosity of alumni, parents and friends in ways large and small. And I would like to thank all of you who have joined this tradition through your class gift.

Thank you to our grand marshal and to all of our performers and speakers, and a special thank you to Alexis Ohanian and Olympia for reminding us that we are all Hoos.

I have one item of housekeeping before we conclude, and that is that graduates should please stay at their seats until after the platform party has exited the field, and then proceed to exit using the tunnel.

At this point, I am the only person keeping you from your celebrating with your family and friends, which is why I would like to spend the next 45 minutes or so talking about our global challenges and how your time here has prepared you to meet them.

I’m kidding, although it’s true. Instead, I’ll leave you with one simple request, which is 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. Instead, I want you to remember the feeling of being here, in this place, with these people, and carry it with you.

Remember what it felt like to be surrounded by a diverse group of fellow students who were as compassionate as they were talented.

Remember what it felt like to explore in ways you never had before, and to learn from professors who loved a subject so much you couldn’t help but get excited about it, too.

Remember what it felt like to live with your friends. You don’t need a lot of friends in life, but you do need some rock-solid ones, and I hope you’ve met some of them here. Maybe even a future spouse, like I did.

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.

Remember how it felt to serve others, and the satisfaction that came from devoting your time and energy to something bigger than yourself.

Remember how it felt the first time you realized that in streaking, as in life, it’s important to leave enough gas in the tank for the return trip.

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

Finally, I hope you remember the words to this song, which you are about to sing for the very first time as graduates of the University of Virginia, accompanied by a fellow alumna.

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