Not only do West Virginia University’s newest graduates have much to celebrate in a year that defied traditions and norms, as they enter the next phase of their lives, they are drawing strength from being tested and are instilled with the most critical skills for succeeding in the 21st century: Adaptability, resilience and purpose.
That was the message from keynote speaker Brad Smith, the former Intuit president and CEO who serves as executive board chairman, during Saturday’s virtual commencement ceremonies.
“I know the events that have occurred in 2020 stink. But here you stand — the most blessed and best prepared class of students in our nation’s history,” Smith told graduates.
“I suspect this description may surprise you,” he added. “But you will discover over time these events were indeed blessings because the strongest steel is forged in the hottest fires.”
Ranked among the top executives in the United States by Fortune, Smith assured graduates this year has tested them in ways that will pay significant dividends in the future.
Students in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, Taoreed Lawal from Saudi Arabia and Gabrielle Hendrick from France, adapted to a new culture and found their purpose at WVU.
While earning his master’s degrees in safety management and industrial hygiene, Lawal forged through the pandemic to study leakages in N95 masks, and Hendrick, who found her passion in robotics, continued to work at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory and adapted to additional protocols as an EMT with Monongalia EMS while completing her doctoral degree in mechanical and aerospace engineering.
“I love WVU so much because this place has brought me so many things — a family, my Ph.D., a home and eventually a career as an astronaut. I don’t think I was truly happy until I moved to West Virginia,” Hendrick said.
President Gordon Gee’s message highlighted the grit that has fueled Mountaineers for decades.
“While the current global crisis caused by COVID-19 is unprecedented, we are reminded of the many hardships that West Virginia University students have overcome — from wars, to economic depressions, to national tragedies — on their paths to graduation,” Gee said.
Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Maryanne Reed also reassured graduates that they possess the skills needed to succeed.
“You have faced a myriad of challenges, and you’ve kept alive your ambitions, hopes and dreams. You have pivoted and adapted. And this says a lot about you and your ability to face the future,” Reed said.
That resonated with two four-year student-athletes from the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences. Although real-world experiences have been scarce for students, Louise Daenekindt, a member of the rowing team from Belgium, landed a student-teaching placement at Stepping Stones working with individuals with disabilities and Morgan Bullock, a member of the swim and dive team from Michigan, was hired as NCAA Division I swim team coach.
Smith told graduates they are blessed to graduate at a time when a series of game-changing efforts are coming to fruition in West Virginia, such as the Virgin Hyperloop Certification Center, and a remote worker program fueled in part by Smith’s own generous gift expanding efforts by the newly named Brad and Alys Smith Outdoor Economic Development Collaborative.
“All of these are in service to creating a new chapter so your generation will no longer feel the need to leave the state to find a job,” Smith said. “Go put your dent in the universe; you were made for this.”
Graduates also heard special messages from their deans, and although they didn’t walk across the commencement stage during the presentation of candidates, their names simultaneously scrolled on screen while being read aloud.
Ceremonies closed with a virtual tassel turn, and graduates near and far sang “Country Roads.”
Gee offered a reminder about the path ahead: “Even if you make a few detours — your inner calling will always lead you to the perfect destination. And you will always count among the best things to emerge from this strange, challenging year.”