A class that has endured a global pandemic, a mass shooting on Grounds and hate crimes in their final year graduated from the University of Virginia’s College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences on Saturday morning.
Graduates from the class of 2023 buzzed with excitement as the audience of about 18,000 applauded their accomplishments. Although, the ceremony could not go on without acknowledging the trauma that the class has experienced since the school year began last fall.
“This class has been through a lot,” said UVa spokesman Brian Coy. “And I think we’re all feeling the emotions of that today. A lot of their memories will be of the turbulence during their time here … but, in that sense, they will be ready for whatever life has for them.”
UVa Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics Carla Williams, the first Black woman to serve as athletics director at a school from a Power Five conference, advised the graduates to “believe in yourself first” as she delivered the commencement address on the warm spring morning.
“If you want to follow a path that has been painstakingly paved by the sacrifices of others, follow it,” Williams said. “If you want to blaze a new trail, blaze it. If you want to make a difference, make it. You get to decide.”
While delivering a speech full of sports analogies and gentle words for the families of the Nov. 13 shooting victims, Williams admitted that she had originally planned to decline the university’s invitation to deliver the Final Exercises commencement address.
“As you know, it has been an incredibly emotional year, and when I was invited to speak, I decided to politely decline because I just did not know if I had enough left in the tank to give you guys my best,” Williams told the graduates.
That was until she received a text from Happy Perry, the mother of D’Sean Perry who was killed alongside two other student-athletes on Nov. 13. Happy Perry asked if she could walk at graduation to accept her son’s degree. Williams received the green light from university officials and asked Happy Perry if she was sure she could take that walk.
“She paused and said ‘Yes, he would be very proud of me, and I will power through to do it for him,’” Williams said. “It was at that moment that I knew I would be speaking today.”
Mike Hollins, a survivor who was injured in the same shooting at UVa last fall, also attended the ceremony with his loved ones. Hollins earned a bachelor’s both, American and African American and African studies from the College of Arts & Sciences last December.
“Any reflections on this past year must include acknowledgment and remembrance of the tragic and heartbreaking events that took place on Nov. 13,” UVa President Jim Ryan told the crowd on Saturday. “The deaths of three students — Devin Chandler, Lavell Davis Jr. and D’Sean Perry — were devastating. The depth of the loss of these talented and beloved teammates, classmates and friends is incalculable. At the same time, the way that this community came together to remember and celebrate the lives of those who were killed and to support each other made it plain that the students we lost will never be forgotten.”
The scene Saturday was both celebratory and somber in nature as the class of 2023 crossed into alumni-hood with heavy words in the air and helium balloons in hand.
Each year, graduates are equipped with balloons to carry before and during the graduation ceremony, making them easier to spot in the crowd. Before taking their seats, as the graduates bump balloons and get them stuck in tree branches, each student is given the option to donate their bright and shiny balloons to patients at the UVa Children’s Hospital.
Also on Saturday, the School of Education and Human Development held its hooding ceremony at 10 a.m., while the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy’s Academic held its regalia ceremony at 5:30 p.m.
The university will hold its final graduation ceremony of the spring semester on the Lawn at 9 a.m. on Sunday, when graduates will receive their degrees 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.