There’s nothing quite like walking the Lawn. And on Saturday morning, University of Virginia students got to do it for the first time since 2019.
In the first of two Final Exercises ceremonies, degrees were conferred for students from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences. (Students in the University’s 11 other schools will receive degrees in a second ceremony on Sunday.)
Despite steamy conditions on Saturday in which the temperature approached 90 degrees, the students – who may have set an unofficial record for the number of balloons brought to a graduation ceremony – seemed to be loving every second of it.
The traditional ceremony (this year is the 193rd edition) had not been held since 2019 due to the pandemic. The ceremonies were virtual in 2020, and last year graduates proceeded across the Lawn on the way to ceremonies held in Scott Stadium.
“This is amazing,” said Sidnea Strelser, a statistics and biology double major from Northern Virginia. “It’s awesome to see everybody coming out to celebrate and getting to reunite with friends for one last time.
“It’s cool to see some people who maybe I was friends with first and second year, but then the pandemic hit and we stopped running into each other, and now it’s like we’re running into each other again.”
Kathleen McPhillips, a Charlottesville native who double-majored in economics and environmental thought and practice, said being in the marching band with Strelser and getting to witness many of UVA’s biggest sports victories – including the 2019 win over Virginia Tech – was a highlight of her time.
“It definitely shaped my college experience and the community I found here,” McPhillips said.
James and Cathy Orr came from Cincinnati to watch their first grandson, James Orr, graduate.
“This is so impressive,” Cathy Orr said. “The history and the beauty of the campus – it’s just gorgeous.”
Alumnus Anthony Gould, a Hampton native who now lives in Mesa, Arizona, traveled to see his niece, Morgan Foster, graduate. Prior to the ceremony, Gould – who met his wife when he was a student at UVA – had the chance to check out the Lawn room he lived in nearly a half-century ago.
“I feel chills,” said the 1976 graduate as he stepped into the room. “The memories of walking these Grounds and putting my rocking chair out here and watching people go up and down the Lawn – it’s just very, very moving to be here today.
“I wish I was back in time. These were the good ole days, the easy days, no responsibility. All you had to do was study.”
It was a special day for El Salvador natives Tony and Marlin Coreas, who have lived in Northern Virginia for the last 30 years. They were on hand to see their son, Alessandro, a political science major, become the first person from their family to graduate from college.
“This is very exciting for us,” Tony Coreas said. “We love UVA. UVA was always his first choice – this was his dream school to come to.”
Dheeraj Ram came all the way from India to attend UVA – and his parents weren’t about to miss Saturday’s festivities.
“My son learned amazing things at UVA – how to live independently in life, how to move forward in life,” said Karimpuzha Raman, who was seated in the front row next to his wife. “UVA was a great place to mold him.”
After the Academic Procession, the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem – which was performed by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band from Fort Eustis – UVA President Jim Ryan greeted the packed Lawn.
“Welcome to the hottest show in town,” joked Ryan, before turning over the lectern to UVA Rector Whittington W. Clement.
In his remarks, Clement encouraged students to continue in their quests to be both “great and good,” which has been one of the major themes of Ryan’s tenure. “I hope you will find a path of service in some form,” Clement said, “because I think that is where happiness lies.”
UVA Professor of History Claudrena Harold then took center stage. Harold, who specializes in African American history, Black cultural politics and labor history – and who is also an acclaimed author and filmmaker – referenced a speech that former UVA President Edgar Shannon made 52 years ago to the graduating class of 1970.
“President Shannon cautioned against tethering the college’s vision of the future to old paradigms and formulations,” Harold said.
Quoting from Shannon’s speech, Harold added, “In looking to our future here, within the University of Virginia, we must avoid, I think, too much use of slogans about the ‘old University’ and the ‘new University.’ Sloganeering is a poor substitute for hard thinking. We must continue to be a true university that provides freedom and opportunity.”
Harold told the students that freedom and opportunity cannot thrive under the weight of orthodoxy, rigidity and dogmatism.
“Growth – institutional and individual – requires regeneration and renewal,” she said.
Harold’s advice for students was to not be afraid to depart from their “script.”
“The one you write and the one others will attempt to write for you,” Harold said. “Life is a series of promising starts, unexpected disruptions, dashed expectations and beautiful surprises.”
Harold had one such surprise during her days as a college basketball star at Temple University.
“So invigorating were the intellectual conversations within and beyond the classroom, that my love for athletic competition faded tremendously,” Harold said. “There was more to life, I thought, than 6 a.m. workouts, afternoon practices, late night bus rides to and from arenas.
“So I revised the script and graduated early. The decision was exhilarating and frightening – sort of like giving a graduation speech before thousands of people.”
In his closing remarks, Ryan encouraged students to remember specific feelings they experienced during their time on Grounds.
“When I say that, I’m not just talking about remembering a specific class you took or an event that happened, although I do hope you remember those things,” Ryan said. “Instead, I would like 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 the subject so much that 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 your life, but you do need some rock-solid ones, and I trust you met some of them here.”