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W&M opens academic year with virtual ceremony

William & Mary kicked off the 2020-2021 academic year Aug. 19 with an online ceremony featuring words of welcome from administrators, alumni and students.

“This ceremony is like everything else this year — different,” said W&M President Katherine A. Rowe. “Our goal is to celebrate in a way that ensures that the whole community can take part.”

The university traditionally hosts an Opening Convocation ceremony each fall to mark the beginning of the year. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, that ceremony has been postponed until the community can gather safely. The virtual ceremony sought to give the university a chance to celebrate together in real time – whether watching from residence halls or locations around the world.

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During the event, a student and staff member were honored with the 2020 President’s Award for Service to the Community, and Senior Class President Aria Austin ’21 presented the Class of 2024 banner, which will hang on the Wren Building for a week before being moved to the Sadler Center.

Ellen Stofan ’83, D.Sc. '16, the John and Adrienne Mars Director of the National Air and Space Museum, served as the keynote speaker for the virtual event. She told the new students that the name of the rover aboard the Mars 2020 mission — Perseverance — is particularly meaningful at this moment.

“You arrive at a time of unprecedented and unique challenges,” she said. “The COVID-19 epidemic has upended your carefully laid plans and twisted your expectations in unimaginable ways. But the uncertainty gives you the chance to think creatively about how you explore and grow and take advantage of the chance to work here on campus with the amazing William & Mary professors.

“You can find ways to distantly engage with your wonderful classmates. You can find ways to really excel in this new environment, facing this big issue. You can dream and imagine your goal in having a big impact on humanity.”

Recalling her own start at W&M, Stofan said she was excited not just about her time on campus but what opportunities would become available to her after graduation.

“While what is may be strange and difficult, what can be is as full of opportunity for you as it was for me, if not more so,” she said. “So while I wish you the best of luck, I know you really don't need that. Just keep looking forward, imagine the possible and even the impossible. Have fun with your classmates, and I can't wait to see the amazing future that you're going to create for all of us.”

Provost Peggy Agouris told new students that they are joining W&M at a time when creating community is vital, and she encouraged them to show grace to others and themselves.

“Don't hold yourself to false standards for what counts as success,” she said. “Talk with each other and with our faculty about what you think a successful semester might be. Let yourself discover and define success for fall 2020 in your own terms.”