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UMW commencement crowns challenging year for Class of 2021

From UMW:

Sandra Vasquez’s cap said it all: “Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I doubted. But I never gave up.” Written in Spanish, the subject Vasquez studied at the University of Mary Washington, the glittery message on her mortarboard summed up the year. But the moment, she said, felt “surreal.”

“It’s crazy. You go through school for so long and just don’t expect it to end,” said Daniela Sarai Chacon, who majored in biology and minored in Spanish. “An in-person graduation is a light at the end of the tunnel.”

The two best friends, who met at Mary Washington, were among members of UMW’s Class of 2021 who walked across the Commencement stage this weekend. For this group of students – nearly 1,200 strong – the event signifies the successful completion of college careers and a turbulent year that tested us all, with racial unrest, political angst and a global pandemic. Ongoing concerns about COVID-19 caused the celebration to be split into a sextet of ceremonies, but there was one central theme.

“Your class will undoubtedly go down in the annals of Mary Washington history,” President Troy Paino said. He acknowledged the many ways UMW’s 2021 graduates have proven their perseverance, beginning when the University switched to remote learning last spring through the uncertainty of their graduation plans.

Relocated from its traditional site on Ball Circle to accommodate pandemic guidelines, this year’s Commencement was held on the 11,000-square foot Campus Recreation Field adjacent to U.S. 1. Nine ceremonies – three Thursday and Friday, May 6 and 7, for the Class of 2020, and six Saturday and Sunday, May 8 and 9, for the Class of 2021 – were planned.

Sharing the stage with Paino were Provost Nina Mikhalevsky; Alumni Association president Jenifer Blair ’82; student, faculty and Board of Visitors representatives; and Department of Theatre Director of Marketing and Audience Services Jon Reynolds, the official reader of names.

Throughout the course of the weekend, 2021 graduates Anna Beth Tanner, Zanab Farooq, Rachel McVicker and Alexander Lee joined the platform party to welcome their peers, as did BOV members Princess Moss, Heather Crislip, Marty Abbott and Devon Cushman. Faculty representatives included Professor of Psychological Science Miriam Liss, Associate Professor of Business Chris Garcia, Department of Communication and Digital Studies Chair Anand Rao, Department of Music Chair Brooks Kuykendall, Department of English Chair Gary Richards and Assistant Professor of English Ray Levy.

In his speech, Paino encouraged the graduates to reflect on the unwavering support they’ve received from family and friends, as well as faculty, advisors and mentors they have found at UMW. He also reminded them that this moment was only the beginning of their journeys. “If … you ever need a sense of belonging, a community where you will always matter, Mary Washington is always here.”

Tanner echoed those sentiments as she presented the Mary W. Pinschmidt Award, established in 1999 through private donations and presented to the faculty member that the graduating class “will most likely remember as the one who had the greatest impact on their lives.” College of Business Professor Kashef Majid received the honor, Tanner said, for making his classes “not only fun and engaging, but also extremely pertinent to real world situations.”

Rebecca Brawner, who received her bachelor’s degree Thursday and her master’s of education degree this morning, found a bright spot in a difficult year. “We’ve learned a lot about technology,” she said. “It’s definitely been challenging but worth it.”

Economics major Greg Oh agrees. “It was rough at first, but we soon adapted … and here we are.”

Despite the unusual set of circumstances that reshaped this year’s ceremonies, the milestones were still filled with cherished customs, from the bagpipers and drummer that marched the newly minted grads off the field, to Dean of Student Life Cedric Rucker helping make everyone’s regalia look picture perfect.

And of course, Mary Washington’s Alma Mater made an appearance, performed at the end of the ceremony and quoted at the conclusion of Tanner’s speech.

“One of my favorite moments of the alma mater is ‘Whene’er we have to leave you, we never will forget, the lessons you have taught us, and all the friends we’ve met,’ ” Tanner said. “I hope you will take these lessons and friends with you, as we walk forward into this new chapter of our lives.”

This story was written by Lisa Chinn Marvashti ’92, interim director of Media and Public Relations, and Jill Graziano Laiacona ’04, media relations manager. 

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