As they spent the final hours of their four years at Washington and Lee University on Thursday, May 23, members of the Class of 2013 were urged to think boldly and creatively and to cherish the ideals of a liberal education.
Robert W. Strong, interim provost at W&L, offered that advice during the University's 226th undergraduate Commencement exercises, on the Front Lawn.
Though the weather had seemed threatening, blue sky appeared overhead just before the graduates stepped off on their march. When he opened the ceremony, Washington and Lee President Kenneth P. Ruscio made a point of welcoming everyone to the outdoor commencement ceremony.
The 438 members of the Class of 2013, including 14 students who graduated in December, represent the second-largest class in W&L's history. Of the 424 who participated in the ceremony on Thursday, a record 21 earned two degrees — both a B.A. and B.S. — while 34 percent completed more than one major, and one student had three majors. The graduates were divided equally between men and women and came from 38 states and 16 countries.
The class valedictorian was Maggie Lynn Holland, a biology major from Bartow, Fla., who compiled a 3.989 grade-point average on a 4.0 scale during her career. Kendré Barnes, from Omaha, Neb., and Wayde Marsh, from Milford, Del., received the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, which the faculty bestows on students who excel in "high ideals of living, in spiritual qualities, and in generous and disinterested service to others."
The University awarded an honorary doctor of law degree to Pamela J. White, a 1977 graduate of the W&L School of Law and currently associate judge for the Baltimore City Circuit Court for the 8th Judicial Circuit.
In his remarks to the class, Strong, the William Lyne Wilson Professor of Politics at W&L, told the graduates that while they will always remember the beauty of the campus where they have lived and studied, the campus is inseparable from the people who populate it.
"People and place are interwoven in a tapestry of memories that enhances your response to both," said Strong. "And people may matter more than place."
In addition to the people and the place, Strong asked the graduates to think about the ideas that they had encountered at Washington and Lee — ideas like honor, which pervades the University, and ideas of a more personal nature, based, for instance, on "a crucial encounter in a classroom or outside with an observation or an insight that became a pivot point in what you think, what you feel or what you plan to do next."
The liberal education that they have acquired at Washington and Lee is a rare commodity, said Strong. Referring to the persistent conversations in higher education about online education, he said that a liberal education "is not something you could easily acquire on your own, in front of a computer, or outside of a complicated community like this one. It takes a village; it takes a college; it takes spending time in the company of others committed to the serious and systematic exchange of ideas."
He added: "At its best, a liberal education is cultivated curiosity, tolerance for alternative points of view, humility in response to deeply challenging questions, capacity for making connections between disparate disciplines, and independence of thought anchored in an acquaintance with the enduring mysteries of the human condition."
Steele Burrow, a politics major from Dallas, Texas, and the president of the student body during the 2012-13 academic year, spoke for his classmates. He referred to the time of continued uncertainty in which the students are graduating.
"The best response to this sense of mistrust and skepticism is the sort of community we foster here at Washington and Lee, one that cultivates honor, integrity and trust," said Burrow. "We commit ourselves to a higher standard, and in turn we receive higher benefits. Trust itself is a sort of freedom. You don't have to look over your shoulder to check your neighbor's honesty. You are free from the restraints of skepticism and fear."
Concluded Burrow: "As bittersweet as graduation and the end of our time as students here may be, we can leave today knowing that we begin the rest of our lives with a unique and valuable gift; not just a Washington and Lee degree, but a Washington and Lee experience."
W&L President Ruscio offered the last words while formally welcoming the graduates as alumni. He asked that they pause for one final second and consider the setting: on the historic Front Lawn between Washington Hall, named for the University's first major benefactor and one of the most consequential figures in history, and Lee Chapel, final resting place of Robert E. Lee, the institution's 11th president who shaped the education still offered by W&L.
"Consider," he told them, "the legacy that has been handed down from Washington to Lee to you here today, manifested in such perfect architectural alignment. Forever, you will be known as a graduate of this University, and you should carry that distinction not only with pride, but with responsibility and a sense of honor."
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