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UVa professor encourages graduates to 'reject the echo chamber'

The commencement speaker for the final graduation ceremony of Final Exercises weekend at the University of Virginia used his time on stage to thank minority students for challenging their peers to “think more carefully and critically.”

“For the rest of us, I have a word of advice: Seek out and commit to a community where you are in a minority,” said Louis P. Nelson, a professor of architectural history and the vice provost for academic outreach at UVa. “We must learn to reject the echo chamber of constraining communities, and build, instead, courageous communities that challenge us to listen well, to build empathy, to think more critically of the greater nuance and complexity, the dehumanizing extremes of self-determination or suffocating social homogeneity are best mediated by a daily dose of healthy democratic society.”

UVa has a history of inviting alumni, including athlete Ralph Sampson and comedian Jay Pharoah in recent years, to provide the three primary addresses during Final Exercises weekend.

Roughly 4,700 undergraduate, graduate and doctorate graduates gathered on the Lawn to cross into UVa alumni status on Sunday morning, which was sunny and humidity-free after a brief rainstorm Saturday evening. About 15,300 guests filled the seats with big smiles and flowers in hand for the most-attended ceremony of the weekend.

While Arts & Sciences undergraduate and graduate students had their ceremonies on Saturday morning, the rest of the graduates from the Darden School of Graduate Business Administration, Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, McIntire School of Commerce, School of Architecture, School of Continuing & Professional Studies, School of Data Science, School of Education and Human Development, School of Engineering & Applied Science, School of Law, School of Medicine and the School of Nursing took home their degrees on Sunday.

As a faculty member of 22 years, Nelson said he recalls the hate-filled and fatal weekend of Aug. 11-12, 2017. He reflected on his time joining a pilgrimage of about 100 Charlottesville community leaders who traveled to prominent civil rights site in the South. Nelson — who specializes in built environments of the early modern Atlantic world and has published works on the American South, the Caribbean and West Africa — thanked UVa Memory Project Director and religious studies professor Jalane Schmidt and Jefferson School African American Heritage Center Executive Director Andrea Douglas for organizing the trip for “expanding his imagination of the community” at UVa and in Charlottesville.

He further emphasized the university’s role in redressing its own history by reminding the graduates that the Universities Studying Slavery consortium of more than 100 colleges and universities across the country was founded at their own alma mater.

“The nationally celebrated Memorial to Enslaved Laborers behind you all has become the golden standard for demonstrating the importance of continuously marking and reshaping our landscapes,” said Nelson, who edited the book “Educated in Tyranny: Slavery at Thomas Jefferson’s University.” “Because when words fail us, our buildings and landscapes remind us who we have been and they remind us who we are.”

Nelson said that he is not encouraging the graduates to “turn their backs” on Jeffersonian ideals, but rather act as “truth-tellers” who are comfortable going “toe to toe with [their] own demons” while stepping between the gap of “the ideal and the real.”

At the Sunday ceremony, University President Jim Ryan called the graduating class of 2023 “love warriors,” for persevering through a global pandemic and tragedy on grounds.

“You’ve masked when asked and even when not because you cared about this community,” Ryan said. When tragedy struck last November, you organized and attended a silent vigil that brought this community together in powerful and profound ways. I hope … you’ll take from this that there is so much joy to found in this life.”


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