The 2007 spring university commencement brought with it many tears – both of joy and sorrow.
Just 25 days after the tragic events that occurred on the Virginia Tech campus, undergraduates gathered with their friends and families in Lane Stadium Friday night to celebrate their graduation, while a light rain came down on the crowd. Tears of joy were seen as students and families saw their undergraduate careers come to an end after years of hard work.
As expected, the commencement also featured a tribute to the victims of last month’s shootings, bringing tears of sorrow. Each of the families of the student victims were presented with a class ring donated by Balfour.
“They should be recognized, not ignored,” said Sarah Harvell, an international studies graduate.
As the rings were presented by university President Charles Steger, Provost Mark McNamee, read aloud each of the 32 victims’ names while their pictures flashed on the stadium scoreboard screen.
The families of the 18 undergraduate student victims will receive posthumous degrees at their individual college ceremonies on Saturday. Families of the seven victims who were in graduate school and the two doctorate students received their degrees earlier on Friday. The 25 injured victims will also be recognized on Saturday.
Seung-Hui Cho’s family did not receive a ring or a diploma.
Though their graduation was included moments of sadness, many 2007 graduates believed it was necessary.
“It goes without saying … it’s the least they can do,” said Michael Bengston, a finance graduate.
“I think it was excellent the way they handled the 32 diplomas, it was amazing,” said Josh Strickler, a finance graduate.
It also seemed to bring a bit of reality to the events of the past few weeks on campus.
“I feel like its (graduation) not a big deal. Graduation pales in comparison to something like what happened in April. I’m happy, but I have a real reality check on what’s important in life … losing lives is on a totally different level,” Bengston said.
While the university helped to recognize the victims, an administrator took time to note the hard work that Steger has put in over the past month representing the university. Thomas Tillar, vice president for alumni relations, said that he had met with all three of the living former presidents residing in Blacksburg that morning, and they all said how proud they were of their successor.
“Charles, we are all proud of you,” said Tillar.
Gen. John Phillip Abizaid, a retired Army, echoed those sentiments. It was clear that the university was a place of teamwork and focused commitment, he said.
“Thank you, Dr. Steger and your team, for holding things together,” Abizaid said.
Students appreciated all of the tributes – both to the victims and the university.
“I thought it was a nice ceremony, the way they recognized everyone, including Steger,” said Mark Cline, an aerospace engineering graduate.
The ceremony, which saw heightened security from Virginia State police and bag checking, was also marked with comments of hope and encouragement for the future.
Steger began graduation with a greeting and read the class of 2007 a note from President George W. Bush. In the letter to the graduating class, Bush wrote “your actions in the face of great tragedy demonstrate the power of compassion and the indomitable spirit of a proud and determined university. We will always remember the lives that were taken, and we hold their families and friends in our hearts.”
Earlier in the day, Bush released a letter to the entire Tech community, stating that the country had witnessed the compassion and resilient sprit of the whole Virginia Tech community, and the spirit would again be on display this weekend in Blacksburg.
The sentiments were carried on by E. Ann Spencer, president of the Virginia Tech alumni association Board of Directors, in front of a crowd that included alum Gen. Lance Smith, and Board of Visitors representatives Jacob Lutz, John Lawson and Robert Freeman.
“The Virginia Tech community is something we all knew existed, but it took something in the last few weeks to show … the strong bond we have as a Hokie family,” Spencer said.
She went on to say that alumni were proud of the students and the way they have carried themselves over the past couple of weeks.
Bill Thomas, a 1983 alumus who currently lives in Tampa, Fla., agreed with Spencer’s broad observation of the feelings of the alumni base.
“I am so very proud to be associated by tradition with people who turned tears and anger born of a tragedy into dignity,” Thomas said.
Kerry Redican, president of the faculty senate also spoke of the courage of the Tech student body, and how the faculty has been there to support the students throughout it all.
“We have spent a lot of time together, we have gotten to know each other very well … We got into a partnership the day you arrived, the faculty more than anything wanted you to succeed,” Redican said.
Abizaid spoke of the strength of the Tech community. He said that he was asked to speak in January by Steger and he knew then that Tech was an incredible university.
But, after April 16, “I now know that Virginia Tech is an even greater place than most imagined,” Abizaid said.
“As I look out into this crowd of new graduates knowing full well what happened here a few short weeks ago, I am also filled with pride, optimism and the firm belief that you will make our country both wiser and better,” he said.
Steger spoke of the unwavering dedication of many people throughout the past month, including the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg police, the Montgomery County Sheriff’s department, the Virginia State Police, the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg rescue squads and other reinforcements from different localities and universities.
“Without complaint, they stayed around the clock to maintain calm and restore our shattered sense of security,” Steger said.
Steger also thanked the faculty and staff, as well as Hokies United and alumni.
“While grieving greatly, they (faculty and staff) wiped their tears, rolled up their sleeves and went to work, doing anything and everything they could to keep us going when we were struck numb,” Steger said. “They voluntarily arose early and willingly stayed late into the night. They were magnificent in the most difficult of times.”
He went on to recognize the outpouring of support from coming around the world. He told stories of Niagara Falls being bathed in orange and maroon, being sent a flag that was flown at half-staff at the Statue of Liberty and a tree planted in Jerusalem’s Rabin Peace Park. He also spoke of a special flag being designed at the request of NASA to be sent into outer space.
In the end, Steger came back to recognize the students as the rest of the speakers did.
He began with a brief homage to the victims of April 16.
“We wish to pay tribute to those innocent and beautiful young minds who wholeheartedly joined the university seeking knowledge and growth – and to the dedicated professors who were devoted to imparting that knowledge and nurturing that growth,” Steger said. “They wanted to make their mark as individuals, to be a part of the greater world and make it better – and those of us assembled here tonight can attest that they succeeded.”
“And to all of our students here today … I wish I could reach out and hug each one of you. You are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. You are my passion – the focus of my days and most of my nights. You are the future … and your achievements will be felt around the globe,” Steger said.
He went on, “I could not possibly be more proud of you than I am at this moment. You have united, and you have shown the world the meaning of Ut Prosim, that I may serve. I love you all.”