William & Mary

W&M celebrates more than 2,500 new graduates

  • Inspiring words
    Inspiring words  Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice implored the Class of 2015 to be passionate in what they do, cultivate humility, remain optimistic and always serve others and the goals of freedom and justice.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Graduates begin the walk across campus Saturday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  A graduate jumps for joy near the steps of the Sunken Garden.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  A graduate is embraced on Saturday morning, before the Commencement ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Students walk across campus toward William & Mary Hall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Graduates cross the Crim Dell on their way to William & Mary Hall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Graduates pause to take a photo together.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Friends and family line up near the Wren Building to wish the graduates well.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Rice poses for a photo with students before the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Graduates look for family and friends among the crowd of approximately 10,000 gathered in William & Mary Hall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65 addresses the crowd before bestowing an honorary degree upon Rice.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2015
    Commencement 2015  Anuraag Sensharma '15 gives the student speech at Commencement.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Education is a privilege and one that bears responsibilities, Condoleezza Rice told William & Mary’s Class of 2015 Saturday morning.

“So as you leave, I ask you to bear a few things in mind: Be passionate about what you choose to do in life; use your powers of reason; cultivate humility; remain optimistic and always try to serve others and the goals of freedom and justice,” she said.

Rice, U.S. Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009, served as the university’s 2015 Commencement speaker, addressing a crowd estimated at 10,000 in William & Mary Hall. She also received an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree at the event.

{{youtube:medium|FB-gPp8Hvb0, The senior walk}}

William & Mary Chancellor and former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ’65, who served with Rice for several years on the Cabinet of the United States, also spoke at the ceremony, telling members of the Class of 2015 that they have “earned a mark of distinction that will serve you well for the rest of your lives – a William & Mary degree.”

Reflecting on his own graduation from William & Mary 50 years ago, Gates said that he was “struck more by the similarities than the differences.”

“What remains at the very core of a William & Mary education is the powerful notion that each of us should find ways to serve the greater good,” he said. “Likewise, each of us bears a responsibility to nurture our alma mater – the alma mater of a nation – and ensure it thrives for all time coming. Each generation of graduates has emerged, like you, uncertain of exactly what awaited them in life. But each one did know that they were destined to make a difference.”

{{youtube:medium|_paoCYYc1oo, Gates' Commencement remarks}}

Service is the greatest William & Mary tradition, Gates added.

“And it’s the most important one to continue. Today, as you receive the hard-earned mantle of William & Mary graduate, know that you, too, can make a difference in your life. I’m confident that you will.”

Obligations of the educated

Rice said that she has long held the belief that education is transformative and “literally changes lives.”

“That is why people over the centuries have worked so hard to become educated,” she said. “Education, more than any other force, can help to erase the arbitrary divisions of race and class and culture and unlock every person’s God-given potential.”

{{youtube:medium|TVNlYpP3_cM, Rice's Commencement speech}}

Rice’s passion for education was inspired by stories of her paternal grandfather – the son of a sharecropper in Alabama – who saved up cotton to pay for his education at Stillman College. When he was out of cotton his sophomore year, he entered the program to become a Presbyterian minister in order to gain a scholarship. Rice’s family has been college-educated, and Presbyterian, since, Rice said.

“But, you know, John Wesley Rice, Sr., was on to something. He knew that education was going to allow him to become someone that he otherwise might never even imagine,” Rice said. “And he knew that it would resonate for generations of Rices to come.”

Because of what her grandfather and other ancestors endured, “poverty and segregation – really, second-class citizenship,” they understood that education was a privilege and brought with it certain obligations, said Rice.

One of those is the obligation to “find something you’re passionate about and follow it,” said Rice, adding that she did not discover her own true passion until her junior year of college when she took a course on international politics and became hooked on “things that are national, things Russian and diplomacy.”

“Your passion may be hard to spot, so keep an open mind and keep searching,” she said. “And when you find your passion, it is yours, not what someone else thinks it should be. Don’t let anyone else define your passion for you because of your gender or the color of your skin.”

Among the other responsibilities that come with education are a commitment to reason, rejection of false pride and optimism, said Rice.

 “You’re headed into a world where optimists are too often told to keep their ideals to themselves,” she said. “Don’t do it. Believe in the possibility of human progress and act to advance it.”

All humans share certain fundamental aspirations, said Rice, including the desire to be treated with respect, “no matter who they are or how they look.”

“This challenges us to accept and embrace difference. All too often, difference has been used to divide and to dehumanize,” Rice said, adding that her experience growing up in Birmingham, Alabama, showed her what it feels like “to hold aspirations when your neighbors think you’re incapable or uninterested in anything higher.”

“We have not and will not quickly erase the lasting impact of our birth defect of slavery or the follow-on challenge of overcoming prejudices about each other,” she said. “But please remember this: We do not have a constitutional right not to be offended. We are Americans and I believe we are fundamentally decent people. And in every decent society, whether here or abroad, we should seek not to offend. But we will help our cause if we also resolve to be slow in taking offense.

“It is a great act of kindness to give someone else the benefit of the doubt. Try to react to others as you would hope they would react to you – no matter the color of their skin, and no matter the color of yours.”

As the members of the Class of 2015 leave the university, they “join the ranks of the world’s most privileged community, the community of the educated,” said Rice.

“Capture this moment forever in your mind’s eye – the day when you and your parents and your family and your friends came to this place to celebrate a new beginning,” she said. “And affirm on this day that as you leave this place, you will always remember why you came.”

Awards and honors

Numerous faculty, students and staff members were recognized during the ceremony, including the 2015 Duke Award winner, Music Library Assistant Diane Dudley, and the Class of 2015 Professor, Francis Tanglao-Aguas.

Ellen Catherine Shaffrey ’15, a kinesiology major, received the Lord Botetourt Medal, which is presented to the graduating senior with the greatest distinction in scholarship. A double major in biology and public health, Laura Pugh ’15 was honored with the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup, which goes to a graduating senior “who best combines the qualities of character, scholarship and leadership.” Jonathan Lefcheck, who earned a doctorate at W&M’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science, was awarded the Thatcher Prize for “scholarship, leadership, character and service.”

Three people received Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards, “for heart, mind, and helpfulness to others”: Hannah Sophia Kohn ’15, Andrew Alden Wilke ’15 and Stephen W. Tewksbury, executive director of University Events.

This year’s Graves Awards, for sustained excellence in teaching, were presented to Jonathan Arries, associate professor of Hispanic studies, and Bill Geary, associate professor of accounting.

Anuraag Sensharma '15 served as this year’s student Commencement speaker.

{{youtube:medium|D4hnx41uJNc, Sensharma's student speech}}

The ceremony was part of a weekend full of events, including Friday’s Donning of the Kente ceremony, which celebrated the accomplishments of students of color, and a commissioning ceremony in which nine William & Mary students became Army officers. Approximately 2,526 degrees – 1,672 undergraduate and 854 graduate – were awarded throughout the weekend at departmental ceremonies held across campus. Among those receiving their degrees were members of the St Andrews William & Mary Joint Degree Programme’s first cohort.

A final farewell

As the ceremony came to a close, President Taylor Reveley offered the graduates some final words of wisdom, focusing on three “important realities”: hard work, purpose and service.

“Class of 2015, I’ve seen a lot during the 50 years since I graduated from college in June 1965,” he said.  “In my experience … it’s important for each of us to be willing to work hard on things that matter. It’s important for each of us to figure out what does matter to us, what does give guiding purpose to our lives.  And it’s important that part of our purpose be to use some of our time, talent and resources for the good of our fellow humans.

“But Class of 2015, I believe you already know all this.  You are William & Mary people.”

{{youtube:medium|rlClE9-Sbws, President Reveley's closing remarks}}