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As Ellis seeks Olympic gold, she urges graduates to ‘be bold’

  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Jill Ellis '88 takes a selfie with the Class of 2016 during the university's Commencement ceremony on Saturday in William & Mary Hall.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Graduates line up outside of the Wren Building to begin their final walk across campus together on the day of Commencement.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Graduates walk through the Wren on the way to the Commencement ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  A graduate waves while emerging from the Wren Building at the beginning of the traditional walk across campus.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Members of the official party, including honorary degree recipients John Bridgeland (back, left) and Jill Ellis '88 (center), enter William & Mary Hall at the start of the Commencement ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Graduates gather in William & Mary Hall for the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  W&M President Taylor Reveley greets the members of Class of 2016 along with their families and friends.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Jill Ellis '88 urges the members of the Class of 2016 to be bold.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65 tells the graduates to not only seek to do well in life, but to do good, too.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Seth Opoku-Yeboah '16 presents the student Commencement speech.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  John Bridgeland receives an honorary Doctor of Public Service degree.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Graduates applaud during the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  President Taylor Reveley launches a beach ball into the audience.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Graduates take a photo in front of the Wren Building together.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  Students participate in the traditional candlelight ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement 2016:
    Commencement 2016:  The candlelight ceremony illuminates the Wren Building.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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When Jill Ellis graduated from William & Mary in 1988, becoming a coach wasn’t considered “a solid career choice,” she said.

But she followed her passion and last year was named the FIFA Women's World Coach of the Year after leading the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team to victory in the World Cup.

“At every major juncture in my life, I realized that I chose the route that appeared to be less comfortable, with higher risk,” said Ellis. “I chose to be bold.”

{{youtube:medium|GOcAFXM45J4, Jill Ellis' Commencement address}}

At William & Mary’s 2016 Commencement ceremony Saturday, Ellis charged the university’s graduating students to do the same and “be bold,” whether they knew what was coming next for them or not.

“After today, you have no fixed map, no blueprint to follow. It is yours to build and chart,” she said. “But I am here to reassure you that each of us has an internal compass, and the past four years here, without you realizing it, calibrated your compass. The tools you have learned and sharpened here will prepare you for the next chapter.”

Ellis addressed approximately 10,000 people who packed William & Mary Hall for the ceremony, pausing at the beginning of her speech to take a selfie with the students as they chanted, “USA! USA! USA!” Ellis received an honorary degree at the event, as did John Bridgeland, CEO of Civic Enterprises and co-chair of the Service Year Alliance.

W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65 also attended the ceremony and encouraged the students to not only “do well” in life, but to also “do good.”

“The powerful belief that each of us should find ways to serve the greater good remains the very core of a William & Mary education,” he said. “It is the hallmark of a William & Mary graduate, and it is our institution’s greatest tradition. That tradition is now yours to uphold.”

The value of pressure

The day before the ceremony, Ellis – wearing a green W&M sweatshirt – met with a small group of seniors in Blow Hall, answering questions on topics ranging from her experience confronting gender barriers and the current legal battle between the USWNT players and U.S. Soccer over wages, to the team’s preparations for this summer’s Olympics and how she handles pressure.

“My dad always said to me, ‘If you’re a good person and you’ve got ability, you will always land on your feet.’ Remember that. Put that card in your back pocket,” said Ellis, who majored in English and played soccer at W&M. “You are good people. I know you are, and you’ve got ability or you wouldn’t be here, so remember that you can afford to take risks.”

Ellis echoed that theme in her Commencement speech, recalling how she looked for opportunities to stretch the USWNT players with challenging games in order to prepare them for the World Cup.

“It was in those losses that we learned how far we needed to come,” she said. “We were humbled by the sting of defeat, and it motivated us. We learned tactically what we needed to improve, and we learned how to stick together and have each other’s backs. Unequivocally, without those failures we would not have been crowned world champions last summer.”

William & Mary helped prepare Ellis for the pressure she has faced in her career, she said.

“What I learned here is that pressure is an honorable component of something important,” she said. “Pressure means it is valuable to you. If it has value it will bring out the best in you, so honor the responsibility. Throw your arms around it, and embrace the pressure. If these professors, your fellow students and this environment have made you uncomfortable at times, thank them for it. They have helped get you ready for the pressure cooker of life.”

Although the USWNT’s World Cup win is still fresh in the minds of so many across the country, Ellis isn’t dwelling on that summit, she said. Instead, she’s preparing for the next challenge: leading the team to become the first to ever win an Olympic gold medal after securing the World Cup title.

“Today, you have summited. You have reached a major destination, and we celebrate your achievement,” she said. “Take a moment to pause and enjoy the view. And when you are ready, move on. And be bold.”

Commencement awards

Several students, faculty and staff members were recognized during the ceremony, including this year’s Duke Award recipient Lydia Whitaker, business manager for the applied science department.

The Lord Botetourt Medal, presented to “the graduating senior who has attained the greatest distinction in scholarship,” was awarded to Isaac Alty ’16.

Ebony Lambert ’16 was presented with the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup, which is awarded to a graduating senior for character, scholarship and leadership.

The Thatcher Prize for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Study was presented to Kerrigan Mahoney Ph.D. ’16 for scholarship, leadership, character and service.

Two students and one friend of the university received Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards, which are presented annually to people based on “characteristics of heart, mind and helpfulness to others.” Julia Canney ’16 and Gabriel Morey ’16 were this year’s student recipients, and Wendy Urbano, manager of academic and degree progress for the Office of the University Registrar, was the non-student recipient.

Two faculty members were honored with Thomas Ashley Graves Awards for Sustained Excellence in Teaching: Philip Daileader, associate professor of history, and John Graves, chancellor professor of marine science.

This year's honorary alumni were also recognized at the ceremony: Michael J. Fox, Robert A. Glacel, Sharon and Joseph L. Muscarelle Jr., and Deborah Spirn along with W&M Soccer Coach John B. Daly, who coached Ellis during her time at the university and gave her a senior-year scholarship that allowed her family, which had emigrated from England, to get a green card.

Seth Opoku-Yeboah '16 was selected to be this year’s student speaker, and, in his address, talked about the value of discomfort, likening it to pebbles in a shoe.

“College affords us a chance to confront the pebbles in our own shoe by acknowledging opinions different than ours,” he said. “We must engage with the world around us to learn anything at all, and to engage with that world means challenging our own beliefs.”

{{youtube:medium|-7vtIG-GiBc, Seth Opoku-Yeboah's Commencement speech}}

The Saturday morning ceremony was the centerpiece of a weekend full of related events, including departmental receptions, the Donning of the Kente ceremony and a ceremony in which 18 ROTC cadets were commissioned as U.S. Army officers. A total of 2,077 students – 1,403 undergraduates and 674, graduate students – received degrees over the course of the weekend.

Old and bold?

As the Commencement ceremony drew to a close, W&M President Taylor Reveley posed a question about the 323-year-old university: Is it possible to be both old and bold?

“You can’t keep flourishing if all you’ve got is a glorious past and the capacity in days gone by to rise from the flames,” he said. “You also have to be doing significant things in your own time. Schools in the early 21st century must have the right stuff to do important deeds now, today and then tomorrow. Great universities are always under construction; they are always evolving to meet the new needs and challenges coming their way.”

{{youtube:medium|Daf-xDQTTcA, Taylor Reveley's closing remarks}}

Great universities also have the confidence to be bold, Reveley added, telling the Class of 2016 that W&M’s current bold endeavors bode well for its future.

“But that future cannot be assumed. It must be earned. All of us have the obligation to pass on our legacy, not just intact but enhanced by our support for one another and for alma mater. We are one Tribe,” he said.

“So stick together, Class of 2016, stay connected with other William & Mary people where ever you find yourself on the globe. Wear green and gold with pride. Come back to campus often. And be bold!”