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Isaacson to W&M grads: Make inclusivity your mission

  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  Walter Isaacson addresses W&M's Class of 2017 in Kaplan Arena Saturday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  A little rain couldn't dampen the celebratory mood on campus this morning as the graduates took a final walk across campus together.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  Graduates walk through the Wren Building on their way to the ceremony at Kaplan Arena.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  Graduates cross the Crim Dell on their way to Kaplan Arena.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  The university was expected to confer degrees upon 1,413 undergraduate and 718 graduate students throughout the weekend.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Commencement:
    Commencement:  Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65 addresses the graduates at the beginning of the ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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Although many Commencement speakers tell graduates to follow their passion, Walter Isaacson challenged William & Mary’s Class of 2017 to aim higher.

“It isn’t about your silly, little passion,” he said. “It’s about connecting your passion to something larger than yourself, to a community, to a nation and to a world to make sure all that’s connected.”

Isaacson, president and CEO of the Aspen Institute, best-selling author and former chairman and CEO of CNN, served as the keynote speaker at William & Mary’s 2017 Commencement ceremony, held May 13 in Kaplan Arena. His speech, on the “things we forgot to tell you,” focused on the importance of teamwork, passion, creativity and inclusivity, pulling examples from the people he has written biographies on including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

{{youtube:medium:left|r_PvfnE8Xbc, Walter Isaacson's Commencement speech}}

“Your university has turned out many successful people; it’s turned out many powerful people,” he said. “It’s even turned out three presidents. But the important thing, and what we forgot to tell you, is that it’s more important to turn out good people, people who are going to include others in every step of the way.”

Isaacson received an honorary degree at the ceremony along with Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and former William & Mary President Paul Verkuil ’61. W&M Chancellor and former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 was also in attendance and congratulated the graduates on making it through “one of the most rigorous educations in the world.”

“This arena is filled with the boundless potential of voyagers just beginning life’s journey,” he said. “Embrace that excitement. At many times in life, that same outlook — mindful of the past and with an eye toward the future — will serve you well in choosing your actions in the present, and William & Mary has done its best to prepare you to do choose well throughout your lifetime.”

{{youtube:medium:left|T5Ml1WBsTeo, Robert Gates' remarks}}

Your mission

Although many of the graduates may have been focused on individual achievement in college, Isaacson told them that teamwork would be more important moving forward.

“When you get to the real world, you’re going to learn that innovation is a team sport and that success is a collaborative effort,” he said.

The internet was created by one such effort, Isaacson said, and is still being built in that fashion today.

“The DNA of that means we have created a digital revolution and an economy that’s peer-to-peer and collaborative,” Isaacson said.

Franklin, who was the recipient of W&M’s first honorary degree in 1756, also sought collaboration when pulling together a group of individuals who would become the founding fathers of the country. Their teamwork is evident in their edits to the Declaration of Independence in which they struggled to balance “the role of divine providence and the role of rationality and reason in the creation of our rights,” Isaacson said.

Isaacson pulled from additional historical and modern examples in illustrating his other advice for the graduates, telling them to test the limits of possibility and strive for perfection as Jobs did, to question received wisdom as Einstein did, to straddle the sciences and humanities as Ada Lovelace did, and to learn to compromise as Franklin did.

“Compromisers do not make great heroes, but they do make great democracies,” he said. “It’s something else we forgot to tell you and which unfortunately today is now needed more than ever before.”

Looking again to Franklin, Isaacson recalled how the founding father gave to the building fund of every church in Philadelphia as well as its first synagogue. When he died, the ministers, preachers, priests and rabbi of all of those houses of worship walked arm-in-arm to Franklin’s grave.

“It’s that type of inclusivity they were fighting for 300 years ago, and that’s what we’re still fighting for both abroad and at home and is your mission as you leave this college.”

Awards and honors

Several members of the university community were recognized at the event, including Duke Award recipient Renee Peace and this year’s Alumni Medallion recipients: Ann Baise, Mari Ann Banks, Jane Batten, Susan and Terry Driscoll and Jeanne Weaver.

The Lord Botetourt Medal, presented to the graduate who has attained the greatest distinction in scholarship, went to Bernadette Deschaine ’17.

Timothy Beck ’17 was honored with the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup, which honors the graduate who best combines the qualities of character, scholarship and leadership.

The Thatcher Prize for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Study went to Isaac Irby, who graduated with a doctorate in marine science and a master’s in public policy. The prize is awarded to an outstanding student in graduate or professional study based on scholarship, leadership, character and service.

Beverly Sher, senior lecturer of biology and chief health professions advisor, and Elizabeth Barnes, professor of English and American studies, took home the Thomas Graves Jr. Awards for Sustained Excellence in Teaching.

The Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards are presented to two students and one non-student each year. Daniella Aron-Schiavone ’17 and Terelle Robinson ’17 were this year’s student recipients. Deborah Boykin, associate vice president for campus living and director of residence life, also received the honor.

Colleen Truskey ‘17 served as the student Commencement speaker.

{{youtube:medium:left|myBAxsfHOzM, Colleen Truskey's remarks}}

The Commencement ceremony served as the pinnacle of a weekend of traditions and events, including departmental diploma ceremonies that took place across campus. The Asian and Pacific Islander American Studies Program, established in 2016, held its first such ceremony this year.

Throughout the weekend, the university was expected to confer degrees upon 1,413 undergraduate and 718 graduate students, many of whom achieved significant accomplishments during their time at the university.

Among the undergraduates was J.C. LaRiviere, who served as the 2016 William & Mary Governor's Fellow, where he was appointed to the Secretariat of Technology and worked to present a policy directive to the governor and his chief of staff about the development of a new marketing strategy.

“Working with the governor and the secretary of technology, Karen Jackson (M.B.A. '91), enabled new skills in strategic thinking and relationship development,” he said. “These skills underpinned my efforts, duties, and responsibilities as a student liaison to the Board of Visitors.”

LaRiviere was the third in his family to step into the role following his sisters Kathleen “Khaki” LaRiviere ’14 and Stacey LaRiviere ’14, who served as fellows in 2013. During his college career, J.C. LaRiviere, a history major, also served as a two-term senator and chair of the policy committee for the Student Assembly and president of the student organization LeadCollegiate.

“Merging past and future, the lessons learned at William & Mary go with me, and with all of us — in work, in community, in life," he said. "The Class of 2017 is just getting started."

{{youtube:medium:left|Zl8cR8kKzQ4, Commencement Walk}}

Prepared to lead

As Reveley closed the event, he charged the graduates to become leaders.

“I want you to lead, because I believe, compared to the overwhelming mass of the 2017 graduates across the world during this season, you are unusually able to lead, unusually prepared to lead,” he said. “You’ve got the tickets to do it. And your communities, your states, your nations, indeed, the world need you to lead, so long as it includes making a difference for the better in other people’s lives.

“In my experience, nothing out of the ordinary, nothing that really pushes forward in desirable ways, is likely to happen unless a live human being, a live human, is willing to step out and lead.”

{{youtube:medium:left|huUY7sa_pVU, Taylor Reveley's closing remarks}}

Recalling all of the alumni who have served as leaders in different capacities throughout the years — from highly visible positions to behind the scenes — Reveley assured the graduates that they, too, had been equipped to lead by their time at W&M. They were taught to not take assumptions at face value, be open to different ideas and perspectives, work with people different than themselves and think rigorously and communicate effectively, Reveley added.

“These four sets of comparative advantages honed during your time at William & Mary really do, in my judgment, prepare you to lead,” he said.