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In pandemic, W&M celebrates its birthday and the power of connections

  • A person places an academic hood on Warren Cook, who wears academic regalia
    Charter Day:  Warren Cook, a recognized artist and former assistant chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, receives an honorary degree in public service. He was one of four community builders to receive honorary degrees this year.  
  • Patrick O’Connell wears academic regalia
    Charter Day:  Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington, received an honorary degree in humane letters.  
  • Jayne Barnard wears academic regalia and speaks from behind a podium outside
    Charter Day:  Jayne Barnard, James Cutler Professor of Law, emerita, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree.  
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As has become custom with birthdays in the pandemic, William & Mary celebrated its 328th on Thursday with a virtual version of its annual Charter Day ceremony. The tradition marks the day on which the university received its royal charter in 1693.

Although the community could not gather in person because of COVID-19, the event highlighted the university’s efforts to embody its value of belonging — creating and strengthening connections both on campus and beyond and expanding the university’s history to be more inclusive.

President Katherine A. Rowe presided over the virtual ceremony.“On Charter Day, we honor all these connections, which expand our learning and deepen our understanding of this university and of our world,” W&M President Katherine A. Rowe said in opening remarks for the virtual ceremony. “And we celebrate the future connections that we haven’t yet realized, with new students and colleagues.

“In welcoming each new perspective and experience, we more fully realize the vision for William & Mary: a community of people who want to understand and change the world – and who do so together. These commitments are always a work in progress. They allow us to become who we aspire to be as a university. They are the commitments that advance every democracy, and they will sustain our country now, through our most difficult trials.”

The event included speeches, a reading of the university’s royal charter, musical performances and the presentation of awards. Several members of the current W&M community were recognized for their achievements as scholars, mentors and active citizens.

{{youtube:large:left|LZzbXWwYgrw, The full 2021 W&M Charter Day ceremony}}

The James Monroe Prize in Civic Leadership, which honors an undergraduate who “has demonstrated sustained leadership combined with initiative, character and an unfailing commitment to the ethic of service,” was awarded to Jamelah Jacob ’21. Another senior, Olivia Ding ’21, was honored with the Thomas Jefferson Prize in Natural Philosophy. That award is presented annually to a student for excellence in the sciences.

Katherine Barko-Alva, assistant professor and director of English as a second language/bilingual education at the School of Education, received the Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award for demonstrating, “through concern as a teacher and through character and influence, the inspiration and stimulation of learning to the betterment of the individual and society.” And Virginia L. McLaughlin '71, former dean of the W&M School of Education, was presented with the Thomas Jefferson Award in honor of her service to the university through “personal activities, influence and leadership.”

In a first for the Charter Day ceremony, Rowe acknowledged the Indigenous people who originally inhabited the land where W&M was built. Last year, the university issued a land acknowledgement statement in partnership with the descendants of those people, including members of the Cheroenhaka (Nottoway), Chickahominy, Eastern Chickahominy, Mattaponi, Monacan, Nansemond, Nottoway, Pamunkey, Patawomeck, Upper Mattaponi and Rappahannock tribes. One such member was among four people to receive honorary degrees during the event. Warren Cook, a recognized artist and former assistant chief of the Pamunkey Indian Tribe, received an honorary degree in public service.

Patrick O’Connell, chef and proprietor of The Inn at Little Washington, received an honorary degree in humane letters; he was the first chef to receive the honor from the university.

Jacquelyn McLendon, professor of English and Africana studies, emerita, received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.Two members of the W&M community who have striven recently to acknowledge and celebrate the histories of underrepresented groups at the university also received honorary degrees. Jayne Barnard, James Cutler Professor of Law, emerita, co-led W&M’s 100th anniversary of coeducation commemoration, and Jacquelyn McLendon, professor of English and Africana studies, emerita, led the university’s commemoration of the 50th anniversary of African-American students in residence.

In her remarks as the student speaker for the event, Aria Austin ’21, president of the senior class, encouraged the W&M community to not ignore the ugly parts of the university’s history.

“Sitting with our uncomfy feelings and reflecting on our past and our weakness doesn't make us weak,” Austin said. “It's that exact feeling that helps ignite change this reflection. You're granted the ability to forge a new chapter in history, and each and every one of us has the ability to contribute positively to this story, this reflection, so we can keep moving forward.”

W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98, also challenged the university community to engage in difficult conversations, finding a way to help heal deep divisions within the country.

“Our work is cut out for us,” he said. “The obstacles that lie ahead are enormous. Seeking solutions demands tolerance and a willingness to defend the freedom of expressing diverse opinions. These are no small tasks. We begin by recognizing that we are all in this together. I have no doubt that the scholars of William & Mary have a special role, and an obligation to find solutions, just as William & Mary students have done for generations. I am equally assured that this university and its people are up to the challenge.”