Graduating seniors at Washington and Lee University today were asked to remember and practice the ability college life gave them to step back and see the world from a different perspective.
"I am not talking about idle contemplation, or clearing your mind, or escaping from the world around you," university President Kenneth P. Ruscio said in his commencement address. "I'm talking about engaging the issues even more deeply, but with the widened or adjusted angles that come from stepping away from it."
Ruscio told 421 members of the Class of 2014 that on many occasions, a work of literature helped him see the world differently.
"I remember how a work of fiction depicting another time, another place, helped me understand the world in which I lived," he said. He recalled how reading Stephen Crane's "The Red Badge of Courage" as a boy gave him insight into the moral debates, personal losses and divided nation of the Vietnam War era. "All the King's Men" and "The Foreign Student" later produced similarly new perspectives.
Ruscio urged the graduates not to fall victim to the costs of "our hyper-connected, brave new Twitter-based, Instagram-fixated, cell phone-obsessed, Linked-In world." He warned, "The ability to persuade through reason and evidence diminishes in direct proportion to the convenience of reading and seeing only what we want to."
Nathan Kelly, a politics and economics major from Edinboro, Pa., spoke on behalf of the student body as its president. He reminded fellow graduates that they have been "entrusted with tomorrow," having learned honor, integrity and the knowledge that the generosity of others — donors, parents, family and friends — made their college educations possible.
Among Washington and Lee's graduates were 20 who earned both a bachelor of arts and a bachelor of science degree. Altogether, the Class of 2014 earned degrees in 37 majors. A third of the class completed more than one major, and almost 30 percent of the class completed at least one minor. For the first time, two students each completed three majors and one minor. Thirty-four completed minors in poverty and human capability studies.
Jordan Taylor Kearns of Nicholasville, Ky., was named valedictorian. Kearns compiled a perfect 4.0 grade-point average while earning both a B.A. in politics and a B.S. in physics and engineering. He recently received a Fulbright fellowship to Estonia to pursue a research project entitled, "Improving Oil Shale Technology to Provide Energy Security to Estonia and The United States." After a year abroad, Kearns will attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The university awarded honorary degrees to its retired provost, June R. Aprille, and literary scholar Christopher Pelling of University College, Oxford. In presenting the degrees, Provost Daniel Wubah cited Aprille as "one of the pivotal leaders of the university and architects of its current standing," instrumental in moving W&L forward with its strategic plan, capital campaign, curricular reforms and faculty development. Wubah praised Pelling for opening modern minds to the glories of Greek and Roman civilizations, friendship to Washington and Lee University across the years, extraordinary scholarship, and service as a tutor and teacher at Oxford.
The late Kelsey Durkin, a senior from New Canaan, Conn., who died in an automobile accident last December, was awarded Washington and Lee's Presidential Degree.