Hannah Manning ’20, M.Ed. ’21, woke up with a nervous excitement.
“Like I was getting ready to give a speech,” she said, posing for photos yesterday morning with fellow University of Mary Washington College of Education (COE) students Savannah Rowland and Alexandra Cooper. “It feels good to finally be doing this.”
In less than two hours, the trio – who donned caps and gowns, and held signs of gratitude for COE Professor Jennifer Walker – would cross the Commencement stage to have their bachelor’s degrees officially conferred. It was a moment they’d anticipated for more than a year.
Manning, Rowland and Cooper – each of whom has since earned a master’s of education degree – joined more than 300 members of UMW’s Class of 2020 returning to campus for graduation ceremonies rescheduled twice due to COVID-19. The ongoing pandemic caused the celebration to be split into three socially distanced, meticulously orchestrated sets of festivities over the course of two days. But the moment they’d waited for – the capstone event of their college careers – was finally here.
“Welcome back, 2020!” President Troy Paino told graduates. “We are so happy to see you here. We missed you.”
Moved 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.
Paino shared the stage with Provost Nina Mikhalevsky; Alumni Association member Donna Sheehan Gladis ’68; 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 three Class of 2020 ceremonies, recent graduates Lillian Lester ’20 and Eleanor Kilmon ’20 joined the platform party, as did BOV members Ted Hontz, Pat McGinnis and Marty Abbott. Faculty representatives included Department of Theatre Chair Gregg Stull, Professor of Education and Mathematics Marie Sheckels, and Professor of Spanish Ana Chichester, who also serves as director of the bachelor of liberal studies program.
“You’ve had a rare chance to reflect on your Mary Washington experience for a year, before coming back with your classmates, friends and family, to memorialize what you have gone through and accomplished together,” Paino said. “Time gives you the gift of perspective, and allows you to more fully appreciate the meaning of this occasion.”
Lester announced the winner of the Class of 2020 Mary W. Pinschmidt Award, established in 1999 through private donations and presented to the faculty member the graduating class “will most likely remember as the one who had the greatest impact on their lives.” College of Education Professor Melissa Wells, received the honor for her work as a leader in the movement to provide college students access to affordable course materials.
“It’s exciting,” said psychology major Sam Taylor ’20, who drove up from Richmond with his friend, economics major Thomas Meldrum ’20. “We get to celebrate all the hard work and all the great faculty that taught us so much.”
The playing of the National Anthem and Mary Washington’s Alma Mater added to the pomp and circumstance, as did a single bagpipe player during each of the ceremonies. The mix of sentiments that swirled in the air was heightened when Paino broke from his script:
“I’ve got to tell you, this is one of the most emotional commencement ceremonies I’ve attended, and that’s including ones that have involved family members like my daughters,” he said. “I think of everything that you’ve been through, and your family, but I also think of the people [at Mary Washington], who have invested so much in your life.”
Lester echoed his thoughts on the unique set of circumstances that have colored the past year, since the Class of 2020 – more than 1,300 strong, including three Darden Award winners who earned perfect 4.0 GPAs – was suddenly switched to remote learning last spring due to COVID.
“I am so proud of our class and our generation for the way we have shown up in the worst year that many of us have experienced. You all have displayed resilience beyond measure,” she said. “UMW is really lucky to have a class like us.”