William & Mary

Thomas to new students: ‘Get some light and share it’

  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Judge John Charles Thomas addresses W&M's new students at Opening Convocation on Aug. 30.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  The event coincided with the beginning of W&M's commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the first African-American residential students. (From right) The commemoration committee's chair, Jacqui McLendon, and those three alumnae, Karen Ely ’71, Lynn Briley ‘71 and Janet Brown Strafer ’71 were in attendance along with Sen. Monty Mason.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Sen. Monty Mason read from a General Assembly resolution that was passed in recognition of the 50th anniversary commemoration.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  President Taylor Reveley addressed the new undergraduate and graduate students gathered in the Wren Yard.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  The annual event marks the beginning of the academic year.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  W&M's first African-American residential students lead the procession through the Wren Building.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  The W&M community showed up en masse to welcome the new students to campus.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Current members of the campus community give new students plentiful high-fives as they proceed through the welcoming line.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  President Taylor Reveley watches as the new students are greeted by the campus community.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Convocation:
    Convocation:  Al Albert '69, M.Ed. '71 (second from right) and Isabella Bartels ’18 (second from left) received the 2017 President’s Awards for Service to the Community.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
Photo - of -
50th anniversary commemoration begins

The arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice as Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, but it doesn’t do so on its own, Judge John Charles Thomas told William & Mary’s new students Wednesday.

“We have great hopes on this first day of the academic year for what you will become, but it’s not just for you,” he said. “It’s because what we’re trying to do is ignite within you the burning desire to learn and to keep learning, to push for fairness and justice and equity and then to share the light that is within you.”

Thomas, a longtime member of the Board of Visitors, delivered a rousing speech as part of the university’s Opening Convocation ceremony in the Wren Yard. The annual event marks the beginning of the academic year and gives current members of the Tribe a chance to welcome new undergraduate and graduate students to campus.

{{youtube:medium:left|dTMRLpOjhGE, Thomas' keynote address}}

This year’s event coincided with the beginning of the university’s yearlong commemoration of the 50th anniversary of W&M’s first African-American residential students. Those three students — Lynn Briley '71, Janet Brown Strafer '71 and Karen Ely '71 — were recognized during the ceremony. At its conclusion, they led the traditional promenade of new students through the Wren Building, where they were greeted on the other side by hundreds of cheering students, faculty, staff and alumni in a welcoming line that stretched far into the Sunken Garden.

The skills of freedom

Thomas, who was the first black justice appointed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, said he is always mindful of the history that happened “right up the road” from William & Mary. But as the university began its 325th year, he reminded its new students that history is still being made.

“It was just 50 years ago that people of color were allowed to come here as students … but it occurred because of the perseverance and determination and strong shoulders and the grit of these people, these women right here that you can see and touch, so I want to tell you that history is not just from a long time ago. History is happening right now,” he said.

As a liberal arts institution, W&M seeks to teach students “the skills of freedom,” but not just for their own sake, said Thomas.

“We want you to get it from the beginning, to understand what you are trying to do, to understand that you are here to be about the business of the skills of freedom so that you can go out and move mountains, so you can change the world, so you can make things better,” he said.

Thomas, who has been writing poetry since a young age, shared a poem he wrote about light before issuing one final challenge to the new students — and receiving a standing ovation in return.

“To all of you, all of the undergraduates, all of the business students, the law students, the educational students, the [Virginia Institute of Marine Science] students – everybody who has come here to learn: God bless you. Get some light and share it,” he said.

Awards for service

Two members of the campus community were recognized during the ceremony for sharing some of that light with the local community. Al Albert '69, M.Ed. '71, associate director of athletic development and former men’s soccer coach, and Isabella Bartels ’18 received the 2017 President’s Awards for Service to the Community.

Albert was recognized for helping to develop the Community Partnership Soccer Program of the Virginia Legacy Soccer Club. The program works to increase the diversity of youth soccer players in the Williamsburg area.

Bartels was honored for her work with Lafayette Kids, a program that connects W&M students with children living in the Lafayette Village neighborhood of Williamsburg for mentoring and tutoring.

Recognizing the 50th

Several elements were added to this year’s ceremony to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival of W&M’s first African-American residential students. The yearlong commemoration will not only serve to recognize those alumnae but the contributions of all African-Americans at the university throughout its history.

New students were given green wristbands at Convocation to wear throughout the year as a reminder of the 50th anniversary, and a banner was hung from the balcony of the Wren Building, facing the Sunken Garden.

Sen. Monty Mason ’89 (D-1st) read from a resolution passed by the Virginia General Assembly in honor of the commemoration and presented a copy of it to President Taylor Reveley.

Events will be held throughout the year as part of the 50th, including an opening reception Thursday at Swem Library during which a mural created over the summer in honor of the 50th will be unveiled.

Agreeable disagreement

In his closing remarks, Reveley encouraged the new students to give themselves time to adjust and to focus on just a few extracurricular activities in depth to avoid getting overcommitted. He also encouraged all members of the campus community to engage their differences with civility and be willing to “disagree in agreeable ways.”

“Of course our conversations and debates will become intense at times because we really care, but at William & Mary they become intense coupled with abiding concern for one another as fellow humans, each one of us worthy of respect and basic courtesy from our friends, our colleagues,” he said.

“And I think very, very rarely, if ever, should any of us assume that the precise shape and the precise substance of our own views define exactly what any reasonable and good person must think. Because in all reality, none of us is either intellectually or morally omniscient.”

Welcome to the community

The traditional walk through the Wren Building for new students didn’t exist when Briley, Strafer and Ely were at W&M.

“So if you all would be willing to lead the line, the rest of us will be thrilled,” said Reveley.

{{youtube:medium:left|3DERMLkOeLc, The welcome walk}}

The three alumnae took him up on that offer and led the procession through the Wren and into a boisterous welcoming line, receiving countless high-fives from students who had received the same when they were new to the university.

“I think it’s just a really great tradition,” said Gabriela Montesdeoca ’20. “I loved doing it as a freshman, though it was exhausting. But, I really wanted to be a part of Convocation and just see the freshmen going through and starting their new phase of life in college.”

Luke Erdahl ’20 said he hoped the new students felt optimistic as they walked through the doors of the Wren.

“I hope they felt a lack of worry, a lack of anxiety as they realized that everybody was behind them,” he said.

That impression was definitely made on Lauren Forsythe ’21.

“[I felt] just this incredible sense of community and belonging that I don’t think I felt anywhere else in my life,” she said.

“I’m so excited to start now knowing that everyone is such an ally to each other. That’s just really heart-warming to me.”

Hannah Strouth '19 contributed to this story.