During her four years at William & Mary, Rhea Sharma ’19 has learned to recognize and appreciate the power of her own voice. On May 11, Sharma will employ that same power before a sea of students in cap and gown as the Class of 2019 student Commencement speaker.
A student from Mclean, Virginia, Sharma will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in neuroscience with a minor in biochemistry. As a tour guide, orientation aide and player on the club lacrosse team, she’s been involved in numerous aspects of community and campus life.
She spends much of her time working in the intersection of community service and health, as a member of Health Outreach Peer Educators (HOPE) and a volunteer at Williamsburg United Methodist Church’s Respite Care, a program that provides a social environment for seniors with special needs. At Respite Care, Sharma described finding a community that has helped shape her future career in medicine.
“It’s a way for me to engage with a different population and get out of the college bubble,” she said. “I want to work with seniors in the long run. Seeing how the nurses and staff interact with the seniors is a good way for me to practice and learn to model after them.”
It’s experiences like these, Sharma explained, that have facilitated her pursuit of a career in medicine this fall at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Sharma plans to address her classmates on a theme that came to her in an unexpected way. Just months ago, she found herself sitting in a hard-earned, oversized T-shirt won from an orientation training event in 2012, reflecting on what message she’d be most compelled to share with this year’s graduating class. She became suddenly conscious of and thoughtful about the words printed on her shirt: “Tradition never graduates.”
“I thought, why do we say that? What does it mean?” she said. “I took those three words, and I ran with it.”
With her speech, Sharma will implore graduates to engage in the same reflection.
“We’re a school full of traditions, and that’s part of what makes us so special,” she said. “But we can tend to get stuck in our traditions if we see ourselves as bound by them, instead of looking toward change.
“But, in my experience, we’ve broken old barriers. I’m proud to be a member of William & Mary because we have amazing history and traditions — but we are also unafraid of challenging the status quo.”
With last year marking the 50th anniversary of the first African-American students in residence at W&M and this year serving as the commemoration of 100 years of coeducation at the university, Sharma expressed her plans to acknowledge these special years and empower sustained progress.
“The two anniversaries have inspired so many amazing conversations on campus that I’ve been happy to be a part of,” she said. “It reminds of how far we’ve come and serves as a hallmark for more conversations. This doesn’t mean there isn’t more progress to be done.”
She plans to reference these anniversaries in recognizing a calling for both William & Mary and its newest graduates.
“How can we celebrate what we learned here, but where can we go from here?” she said.
While the lessons Sharma has gleaned from her college experience have been abundant, one of her main takeaways has been the power of community in shaping her voice.
“As a student at William & Mary, you have an army of people to support you, no matter what,” she said. “During my four years here, realizing how many people there are to support me has been pivotal — from professors to staff members to the dining hall staff to the students. They’ve been there to listen to my story, to shape my narrative and to help me be the best version of myself that I can be.”
It’s those empowering forces, she described, that she will carry with her as she moves onto the next stage of her life. The people she’s encountered in college have given her the ability to recognize the importance of her unique perspective, she said.
“One thing I’ve always struggled with is being aware of the power of my own voice. People here have shown me how powerful I can be,” she said. “The biggest thing I will take away is confidence in my voice.”