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Convocation 2018: a celebration of firsts

  • You belong:
    You belong:  Current members of the campus community welcome new students following the 2018 Opening Convocation ceremony Aug. 29.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Summer heat:
    Summer heat:  A student uses the event program as a fan. The heat index rose to exceed 100 degrees on Wednesday.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • Warm welcome:
    Warm welcome:  Despite the heat, the campus community turned out in droves to welcome the new students, with the receiving line reaching from the Wren Building well into the Sunken Garden.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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It wasn’t William & Mary’s first Opening Convocation ceremony, but firsts were front and center at the Aug. 29 event in the Wren Yard.

The keynote speaker, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy ’00 (D-Fla.), was the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress. Katherine A. Rowe, W&M’s first woman president, welcomed first-year students to campus while being welcomed herself by the university community. And the event marked the beginning of W&M’s 100th anniversary of coeducation celebration, a century after its first women students began classes in 1918.

“I stand here, the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to Congress, sharing a stage with the first woman chosen to lead this great university,” said Murphy. “I look out at all of you, a sea of faces composed of young men and women of every race and creed. And I feel motivated by our past, inspired by our progress and hopeful for our future. Above all, I feel pride and joy.”

U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy ’00 (D-Fla.) speaks to W&M's new students at Opening Convocation. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

The annual event serves to welcome W&M’s new undergraduate and graduate students to campus and to mark the beginning of the academic year. This year’s event was abbreviated due to high temperatures, with the heat index for the day exceeding 100. Programs that transformed into fans and water stations posted around the perimeter offered some refreshment to ceremony participants, and the dinner following the event was moved from the Sunken Garden to dining facilities around campus.

Despite the heat, the university community showed up in droves to celebrate the occasion, including W&M alumnus Virginia Del. Monty Mason ’89 (D-1st) who presented Rowe with a resolution passed by the General Assembly to recognize W&M’s 100th anniversary of coeducation. In 1918, W&M admitted 24 women as students becoming the first coeducational state university in the commonwealth. The commemoration, which kicked off Wednesday, will feature a series of special events and programs throughout the 2018-2019 academic year, including an art exhibition now on display at the Sadler Center.

{{youtube:medium:left|CMBp7Nhb518, The welcome walk}}

An American dream

Murphy, who represents Florida’s Seventh Congressional District, told the students about her own path to William & Mary, which began with her parents fleeing Vietnam when she was still a baby. After settling in America, the family struggled to make ends meet, and when Murphy came to W&M as a freshman, she felt overwhelmed.

“I had known adversity,” she said. “I had worked hard, but my life experience was limited. I had no idea what to expect here or whether I was ready. The reason I will always love and treasure this place is that, contrary to my fears, I was welcomed into this close-knit community and into this loyal, loving tribe. My American story merged into the larger American story that William & Mary embodies. 

“It was in Williamsburg—a place so central to the American experiment—that this abstract idea called the American Dream began to assume real meaning for me.”

{{youtube:medium:left|VmEZdHp7wXI, U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy's keynote address}}

W&M prepared Murphy to confront any challenge, she said. And being an alumna of the university is one of the proudest titles she has.

The country needs good citizens now, Murphy told the students, and W&M is a great training ground for preparing people to take on that responsibility. No matter their political leaning, students should read, listen and learn during their time at the university and never compromise their core beliefs while also seeking out people different from themselves. Learn how to argue and persuade others, Murphy told the students, and stand up for your principles in ways that are dignified, respectful and civil.

“If you do all these things, you will leave William & Mary prepared to be the good citizen that this great country needs so badly right now,” she said.

Warm welcome

Two members of the university community were honored during the event for their service work. Tom Chamberlain, a volunteer police officer with the W&M Police Department, and Danny McNeil ’19 received this year’s President’s Award for Service to the Community, which carries with it $500 for an organization of their choice.

As the ceremony concluded, Rowe led the university’s newest students through the Wren Building as part of the traditional Convocation processional. As they emerged, they walked between two new plaques that were hung on the piers of the portico in March: one honoring the first women students at W&M, and the other honoring W&M's first African-American students in residence.

Despite the oppressive heat, members of the campus community as well as alumni and local community flocked to courtyard side of the Wren Building to greet the new students as they emerged from the Wren. Lining the sides of the brick pathway leading down and into the Sunken Gardens, they clapped, cheered, and bestowed generous high-fives on the new students as they filed through.

A new student walks through the receiving line after the Opening Convocation ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Leonor Grave ’19, a first-time Orientation Aide, was among those welcoming the new students.

“This is actually a pretty exciting day because it comes at the end of five jam-packed days of orientation,” she said. “We’ve been leading them from session to session, barely had a moment to breathe, and today they got to experience their first day on their own and go to their first classes. It’s really exciting because they get to gather together as a freshman class for the first time after this whole process we went through with them and experience one of the most fun and biggest tradition we have as a community.”

Juliet Rhodes ’22 from Florida appreciated the warm welcome.

“I think it’s so great,” she said. “I think it totally reveals everything I’ve discovered about the school in the first five days, how just everyone is so supportive. It’s just a really nice community to be a part of.”

As a new member of the W&M community herself, Rowe eventually joined Rhodes and her classmates as they promenaded through the receiving line. At the end of the ceremony, Rowe said that she and the new students shared a special bond.

 “We chose to join an institution that is deliberate and intentional about creating community,” she said. “That’s a theme I have heard often since I arrived on campus: a conscious sense of responsibility to create an inclusive community together.

“So I’m thinking today about William & Mary’s traditions that span more than three centuries. Although they are brand new for you, and for me, as we join them, we take on that responsibility for creating a sense of home here for ourselves and for those around us.”

President Katherine A. Rowe high-fives students after the ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)The W&M president encouraged her fellow newbies to quickly transform from guests to hosts at the university, joining in while also inviting others to join in, reaching out to create a sense of community.

“As we embark on our path through the Wren, remember that we benefit in countless ways from the generous engagement and philanthropy of those who came before,” she said. “The transformation of leadership is to understand ourselves always and already as the host, even as we arrive in new places.  In doing so, you ensure that William & Mary will be your creation – the community you create intentionally in the classroom, in the dorms, on the playing field, on stage, in the studio — everywhere you go.

“So, new students, start today. Be the welcome you desire at William & Mary.”