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Speakers Tell Graduates to Embrace Their Journeys and Demonstrate Perseverance During University’s 129th Commencement Exercises

By Betsy Hnath and Noell Saunders

Wet weather didn't dampen the spirits of graduates Saturday during the 129th Commencement Exercises at Old Dominion University.

Nearly 1,400 bachelor's, master's and doctoral students received degrees in two ceremonies at the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

During the 9 a.m. ceremony, graduates of the Batten College of Engineering and Technology, Darden College of Education and College of Sciences heard from James Squires, chairman, president and CEO of Norfolk Southern. Additionally, Karl Schoenbach, eminent scholar emeritus and professor emeritus of electrical and computer engineering, was awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree at the ceremony.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax spoke at the 2 p.m. ceremony to graduates of the College of Arts & Letters, the Strome College of Business and the College of Health Sciences.

Schoenbach, a founding director of the Frank Reidy Center for Bioelectrics at ODU, holds 26 patents. A recipient of the 2017 d'Arsonval medal, awarded by the for outstanding achievement in bioelectromagnetics, Schoenbach's work is cited more than 20,000 times in scientific literature.

"Eminent Scholar Emeritus Karl H. Schoenbach has devoted his scientific life to understanding and unlocking the power of electrical pulses," University President John R. Broderick told the crowd. "Working with colleagues, professor Scheonbach placed the pulses inside cancer cells, damaging the cells so severely they give up trying to repair themselves and die."

Squires joined Norfolk Southern's law department in 1992. He now runs a FORTUNE 500 transportation company whose railroad operates across 19,500 miles in 22 states. During his tenure as CEO, Norfolk Southern has sharpened its focus on customer service and implemented strategies to enhance stewardship of resources and ensure continued long-term growth.

During his 26 years with the company, Squires' roles at Norfolk Southern have included vice president law, senior vice president law, senior vice president financial planning, executive vice president finance and chief financial officer, and executive vice president administration. Squires became president of the company in 2013 and was named chairman and CEO in 2015.

In his opening remarks, President Broderick praised Squires for his business savvy as well as the company's charitable contributions and "long partnership with ODU."

"Two former Board of Visitor rectors - Jim Hixon and Arnold McKinnon - served in Norfolk Southern leadership positions as did David Goode of the Goode Theatre on campus," he said.

"Today, Norfolk Southern is one of the nation's premier transportation companies, operating railways across nearly 200,000 miles in 22 states, making it the most extensive intermodal network in the East. And Hampton Roads nonprofits are the appreciative beneficiaries of millions of dollars in investments from the Norfolk Southern Foundation, continuing a long tradition of corporate and community leadership."

Squires said he decided against the traditional "follow-your-heart commencement speech" in favor of one that emphasized a model that has served him well: By going where you need to go, you learn along the way.

"I didn't set out to be the CEO of a major corporation. That wasn't my destination, and yet, here I am," Squires said. "I learned by going from one location to the next. By taking one step at a time what my destination would be."

He was quick to point out that the "lucky" graduates in the crowd who had a plan, should "go for it." But those who felt aimless shouldn't worry.

"The journey is the key. There is no predetermined destination. Only one that appears as you proceed. Anyone looking back on life would agree with that," Squires said.

"If you're not sure, don't worry. Pick something and apply yourself fully. You'll be amazed at how much you will learn."

Fairfax won the race for lieutenant governor in 2017, becoming just the second African American to be elected to statewide office in Virginia.

He previously served as an assistant U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia in the major crimes and narcotics unit of the Alexandria division. During his tenure, Fairfax was named deputy coordinator of the Northern Virginia Human Trafficking Task Force.

Before serving as a federal prosecutor, Fairfax worked as a litigator at WilmerHale, LLP in Washington, D.C., following a stint as a federal law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Gerald Bruce Lee in the Eastern District of Virginia, Alexandria Division. In 2013, at age 34, he was awarded the National Bar Association's "Nation's Best Advocates Award," which recognizes 40 top attorneys nationwide under age 40.

At the afternoon ceremony, President Broderick highlighted Fairfax's journey in politics and announced him as a "friend to the University."

"His powerful personal story of family love and spiritual wealth resonated with voters, offering him a platform to help others gain access to opportunities to pursue the American Dream, no matter where they start in life," Broderick said.

Fairfax praised graduates and their families for their perseverance and overcoming adversity to get to the finish line.

"This is a combination of so much hard work, faith, love, sacrifice and sticking to a plan despite obstacles in your lives," he said. "Each one of you deserves high praise for making it to this day and for the future that you have now paved for yourselves and so many other people."

Fairfax recalled that the first time he ran for lieutenant governor in 2013, he lost the Democratic primary in a close race. But he had faith that he would win the next time. He told graduates to keep pushing through no matter what the circumstances are.

"You set the example that our young people will be able to follow in the Commonwealth of Virginia to rise to higher heights in their lives no matter where they start," he said.

Fairfax went on to tell graduates his personal story. He is the youngest of four siblings. When he was 6, his parents divorced. His mother had to start over, so she moved him and his siblings in with his late maternal grandparents, whom he said were "two of the best people he had ever known." His grandfather was a World War II veteran and worked for the United States Postal Service for more than 25 years. His grandmother was a nurse at Howard University Hospital for more than 40 years.

"They took all five of us into their home. That single act of love, generosity and courage steered the trajectory of our lives," he said.

He praised his mother for saving enough of money and making sure all four of her children received an education, in which two of them, including Justin, went to law school.

Fairfax said he his family didn't have a lot of money, but they had spiritual wealth, faith, hope, high-quality education and optimism.

He ended with a powerful story about how he received the name "Fairfax." He discovered in January that his great-great-great grandfather Simon Fairfax was emancipated 220 years ago. His father gave him a copy of his grandfather's manumission document the day he was sworn in as Virginia's 41st lieutenant governor.

He told graduates to always help others.

"When you succeed, you have to lift other people up," he said. "When you get spiritual wealth in your life, you then have a spiritual debt that you must repay."

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