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President's Corner: Graduations Provide A Poignant Farewell

My final President's Corner focuses on the happiest moment for me as president this year - and, no doubt, the happiest for thousands of others. I'm referring to our series of commencement ceremonies in May.

Like our students and their families, I felt a deep sadness over their inability to celebrate their crowning achievement in person since December 2019. Fortunately, the encouraging trends in the pandemic allowed us to hold one virtual and seven in-person ceremonies over four days last month.

Our commencement activities this year proved a resounding success, thanks to the meticulous and creative planning of our graduation team, led by Karen Meier, Mike Fryling and VPs Austin Agho and Don Stansberry. Working within the restrictions placed on us by the pandemic and with barely a month to plan, they made good on our promise to graduates that we would hold in-person commencement ceremonies when it was safe to do so.

The ceremonies were carefully crafted to meet the expectations and desires of the students and families. Graduates of 2020 wanted to celebrate with their classmates, so we organized two ceremonies just for them. The other ceremonies included one event just for those receiving graduate degrees. We also made sure to retain the most meaningful traditions. Each graduate's name was read aloud, and, although we did not have a procession, graduates were able to cross a replica of the University seal on the stage.

Old Dominion was fortunate to have Sen. Mark Warner as our guest speaker for our virtual ceremony. But one difference this year was that our in-person events did not include guest speakers. Instead, I spoke briefly at each one. So, just like our graduates, I had to put in some work.

Our commencement numbers were impressive: 4,000 graduates from 2020 and 2021 registered to attend our in-person ceremonies. Though the ceremonies had seating limitations, nearly 20,000 people attended. And a total of 10,000 people viewed the virtual ceremony or the livestreams of the in-person events.

But more important than the numbers are the graduates themselves. Each one has his or her own story about the journey to commencement.

Emily Destro, a dean's list student, finished her requirements in 2020 for a bachelor's degree in leadership. She finally had the opportunity to walk across the stage last month. Emily recalls finishing her homework many nights in the beds of her young daughters while they fell asleep. She hopes that the memories of those nights will encourage them to persevere to reach their own goals.

Like many ODU graduates, Emily says her path wasn't the traditional route. It didn't follow her intended time frame; it wasn't even the degree she had initially imagined. But she said, "It has provided me the opportunity to grow personally and professionally."

For me, seeing the joy on the faces of graduates like Emily and their families has been the most rewarding part of being president of Old Dominion. Commencements offer tangible proof of higher education's crucial role in changing lives for the better.

Kate and I will soon be leaving the President's House, but we will not be leaving ODU. I will become the Board of Visitors Distinguished Lecturer in the Darden College of Education and Professional Studies. Though I will no longer be president, I look forward to assisting and watching the success of future graduates.

Have a good summer.

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