Valediction Speaker: To Change the World, Lock Up Your Monsters and Unleash Better Angels

May 19, 2023 By Bryan McKenzie, Bryan McKenzie,

The University of Virginia’s Class of 2023 lived and learned through the pandemic, endured the tragic loss of friends, and on Friday took a big step toward the future.

Valedictory Exercises, held at John Paul Jones Arena, celebrated the class’s pluck, courage and kindness with several awards and the presentation of the class gift to the University, an $86,265 check accepted by President Jim Ryan.

Valediction was the first ceremony of Finals Weekend. Formal graduation ceremonies are Saturday and Sunday, and for many will prove bittersweet.

“It’s been a mix of both. It’s been a long road through trials and tribulations,” said Zaakirah Fofana, who is graduating with a bachelor’s degree from the McIntire School of Commerce. “It’s been worth it. I’ve learned so much and met so many great friends.”

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“It’s been a great four years overall. It’s been particularly challenging because we lost some good friends in the shooting this fall,” agreed Bryana Pierre-Louis, referring to the November shooting deaths of UVA football players D’Sean Perry, Devin Chandler and Lavel Davis Jr. She is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English.

Students weren’t alone in their mixed emotions. Parents felt them, too.

“I think we have a feeling of pride for his accomplishment, and it’s also bittersweet. Mostly pride, though,” said Greg Miller, a UVA Law alumnus whose son, Evan Miller, is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science.

Sarah B. Doran recieving an award and a congratulary hug from Stephen Kimata
Sarah B. Doran receives the Gordon F. Rainey Jr Award for Vigilance to the Student Experience from Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment Stephen Kimata at Friday’s Valedictory Exercises. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“He could have graduated early, but we told him to wait and enjoy his last semester and be with his friends,” Brenda Miller said of Evan. “We’re very proud of him.”

Although the class is leaving UVA, going away doesn’t mean leaving forever.

“We’ve made this place home for one another, and the amazing thing about building a home is that even though we will leave, we can always return,” said Fiona C. Moriarty, a trustee of the Class of 2023, in her welcoming comments. “This weekend, we will be facing forward, surrounded by family and friends, and we will venture into the world knowing that we will always be able to come home.”

“Our class has undeniably been through a lot, but my hope for you today is that the hurdles we have faced along the way will not only serve as lessons to be learned from, but also as proof of your strength,” said Lara Arif, class vice president. “What’s next is not another identical and linear path which we can all follow, but something uncertain, something unique, something human, and something beautiful.”

In her address, featured speaker and UVA alumna Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder and CEO of the nonprofit impact investment firm Acumen, agreed.

“Trying to make a difference in the world isn’t easy,” she said. “Many people have that intention, yet they end up living provisionally. They tell themselves they’ll follow their real dream once they earn a certain level of income, or get married, or buy a house. And then, life happens. And 20 years later, too many wonder what could have been different had they dared a little earlier.”

Novogratz told the students that in order to make changes in the world, it is important to keep internal monsters locked up and unleash their better angels.

Lara Arif speaking at the podium at Valediction 2023
Class of 2023 Vice President Lara Arif provided a look back at the last four years during Friday’s Valedictory Exercises. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

“Monsters and angels exist in all of us. Monsters are our broken parts, our secret shames, our petty grievances and insecurities,” she said. “In unstable times, it becomes easy for demagogic leaders to prey on those parts, cast blame on others for our problems, sometimes to see them as less than human – and in the extreme, convince us to do terrible things.”

Novogratz said inequality, toxic social media and divisive politics must be balanced with humility.

“We humans are too easily manipulated by fear and by cynicism, missing the fact that these are the best allies of the status quo. The fearful hide away. And cynics don’t build the future,” she said. “The role of leadership today is to counter fear and cynicism with calls to moral reason, to the vision of a shared future, to love.”

Students, staff and parents in the audience of Valdection 2023
Students, staff and parents react to speakers at Friday’s Valedictory Exercises. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

The important thing, she emphasized, is to start.

“You can follow the thread of your curiosity. Let the work teach you what you have to do,” she said. “Do that long enough, and I promise you, you’ll end up coming home to yourself.”

Awards presented at Friday’s ceremony included the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards to graduating students Aliyah White and Jayden Bolden and assistant professor Lisa Speidel of the School of Education and Human Development.

The Seven Society presented Alexa “Lexi” Cuomo with the Louis A. Onesty Scholar-Athlete Award, and the James Earle Sargeant Award to the Flux Poetry and Spoken Word group on Grounds for dedication to enriching the University community.

The Gordon F. Rainey Jr. Award for Vigilance to the Student Experience went to Sarah B. Doran of Student Financial Services. It was presented by the Society of the Purple Shadows.

Other awards bestowed by the Class of 2023 itself included the Community Service Award to Jordan Taliaferro; the Cultural Fluency Award to Hana Suliman; and the Good Cheer on Grounds Award to Molly Sander.

Media Contact

Bryan McKenzie

Assistant Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications