Hordes of graduates and their families descended on the Lawn on Saturday morning in a return to tradition for the University of Virginia.
Holding water bottles and balloons, the graduates in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences kicked off the first of two ceremonies this weekend with an emotional and sweaty walk down the Lawn.
“Welcome to the hottest show in town,” UVa President Jim Ryan joked to start the ceremony, referencing the morning’s warm weather. “Today marks the end of the 193rd academic session. It also marks the first time in three years that we’ve been able to gather on the Lawn for this occasion.” In the last two years, the university moved graduations online and then Scott Stadium because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These final exercises are the university’s most joyful occasion this year, made all the more so given the sacrifices and challenges you’ve had to endure these past two and a half years,” Ryan said.
Ryan became president at UVa around the same time that the Class of 2022 walked onto Grounds.
“Please know that your class will always have a special place in my heart to joy and it is a sincere privilege to get to know many of you,” Ryan said.
Final Exercises will resume Sunday morning when the rest of UVa’s schools celebrate their graduates. The procession begins at 10 a.m. and the ceremony is expected to wrap up by noon.
Overall, UVa said it will confer 7,827 degrees this weekend. Among Saturday’s group were 575 first-generation graduates, 187 students who graduated in three years and eight who completed their degree program in two.
Speakers praised the Class of 2022 for their resilience shown in the last two years during the COVID-19 pandemic and for their contributions to the UVa community.
“You illuminated those moments that UVa fell short of not just greatness, but goodness,” said Claudrena Harold, a professor and chairwoman of UVa’s history department.
Harold was the featured speaker at Saturday’s ceremony. Because of the class’s role at UVa in the last four years, Harold said she wanted to depart from the typical commencement address and focus on what this group has done rather than what they should do in the future.
She ticked off a list of issues tackled in recent years by students: rising tuition costs and student debt, campus policing, the university’s relationship with the local community, and the vulnerability of essential workers.
“In doing so, you all provided a model of democracy in action and reminded us that democratic renewal requires us to subject our ideas, beloved institutions and even our most cherished traditions to scrutiny,” she said.
Harold noted that the Class of 2022 arrived in Charlottesville a year after the deadly Unite the Right rally.
“You were the calm after the storm,” Harold said. “The darkness of the preceding month and summer lingered over us but your luminous spirit, your luminous presence provided the guiding light as we tended to our mutual woundedness. You were the university’s new beginnings.”
She thanked the students for their contributions and encouraged them to not be afraid to depart from the script.
“The university is immensely better for your work,” she said.
Even though Saturday’s event was similar to previous years before the pandemic, organizers and attendees still had to contend with the heat. Reminders to hydrate and signs regarding heat exhaustion were posted throughout the Lawn.
At noon, UVa Emergency Management said on social media that it measured a heat index of 90 degrees on the Lawn.
Because of the heat, UVa moved school and department ceremonies that were scheduled for Saturday afternoon inside. The university took other precautions, including providing free canned water and refilling stations. Many attendees ended up using their paper programs as fans.
Before the ceremony became, students were celebrating and hydrating on the north side of the Rotunda while friends and family members staked out seats on the Lawn.
Norfolk residents Ed and Mary McPhillips found a prime spot near the Rotunda to watch the processional. Their son, Ted, was among the graduates.
“He did it in four years,” Ed McPhillips said, noting that he needed an extra semester to graduate from UVa in 1986. “It’s a great day. He’s a great kid.”
Mary McPhillips said Ted’s time at UVa has been different than expected, but she was happy to have the ceremony back on the Lawn.
“I’m so glad that he’s able to do that,” she said.