Commencement Address, May 20, 2023
University of Virginia
Thank you Rector Clement. To the Board of Visitors, President Ryan, University officials and staff, distinguished deans and faculty, family, and friends, I’m honored to be here with you today. To the amazing graduates of the Class of 2023, Congratulations!!!
When I told my husband Brian I would be the keynote speaker for today, he started laughing...hysterically. I didn’t know what to make of it and so I started laughing too. Finally, I asked him what was so funny. He looked at me and said “God is hilarious”….and he just walked away laughing.
God is indeed, amazing.
As you know, it has been an incredibly emotional year and when I was invited to speak, I had decided to politely decline the invitation because I simply did not think I would have enough left in the tank to give you my best, but then (as fate would have it) I got a text from D’Sean Perry’s mom, Happy Perry, asking if I thought the University would consider allowing her to stand in D’Sean’s place for Final Exercises. I checked with the appropriate officials and found out, she could. When I called her back to tell her….I said, “It is permissible, but are you sure you can do it?” She paused and said “yes, he would be very proud of me and I will power through to do it for him.”
It was in that moment that I knew I would be speaking today. This opportunity is more special than you will ever know.
As President Ryan mentioned, we are so thankful to have the Perry and Hollins families here with us today. We love you guys forever.
To all families of a student who passed away this year, we, as a University community, hold you close in our hearts and we pray for your continued strength and healing.
As you might have guessed, I plan on using a few sports analogies in my remarks. I have always felt that sport was a powerful force. The way it moves people, the way it challenges societal norms, the way it compels us to believe we can be victorious when seemingly all hope of victory is lost, the way it brings diverse populations together to become one team, one family, the way it causes complete strangers to high five and hug in celebration, the way it ignores and even rejects society’s petty disputes about differences. If we are cheering for the same team...we are family. If we are on the same team...we are family. Sport allows us to be family!
In 2000, Nelson Mandela said, quote “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand.” End quote
Most of what we do and learn through sports is easily transferable as a life skill and I have learned enough through sports to fill volumes, but this morning, I want to share two of those lessons with you.
But before I do that, I want to share a story I heard many years ago about a gentleman in Georgia whose mother and father had been slaves. The gentleman was born in 1888 and he was a laborer and a farmer, who worked land owned by others. He was a man of faith, he was humble, he persevered, he was resilient, he had a great work ethic, he was internally motivated, he lived his life with great integrity and despite his circumstances, he displayed a tremendous amount of empathy for those around him. He got married in 1910 and he and his wife had their first child in 1912. Faith, humility, perseverance, resilience, work ethic, internally motivated, integrity and empathy. All qualities we want in a neighbor, a friend, a citizen. I’ll come back to that story.
Lesson #1 - Don’t wait on someone else to validate who you are and what you can become.
In life, there will be those who will doubt your abilities, create roadblocks for your dreams, maybe even demean who you are. There will be some that will attempt to relegate you to a place less than where you are destined to be.
High school athletes who are college prospects are ranked by stars 1-5 with 5 stars being the best of the best. In the NFL, the pinnacle of professional football, there are more players who were once 3 stars than any other ranking. More 3 stars in the NFL than 4 and 5 stars, combined. Why is that? It’s because the 3 stars have a different type of hunger and they do not allow the external to extinguish the internal. They use that doubt as fuel. For me and for each of you, the fire within us must burn greater than the fire around us.
When I was 8 years old (and I remember it vividly), I was playing pick-up basketball with a bunch of boys who were mostly older than me and after a few games one boy loudly proclaimed, “that lil girl can play”!
I remember thinking, “I know!” You must believe in yourself, first.
If you want to follow a path that has been painstakingly paved by the sacrifices of others, follow it. If you want to blaze a new trail, blaze it. If you want to make a difference, make it. You get to decide and when you decide, you will have opposition. Those who will attempt to fight you every step of the way. That’s why you have two hands. One for the left uppercut and one for the right hook, figuratively speaking, of course. But when you bet on yourself, you need to be prepared to fight for it.
One of my favorite Emerson quotes, “What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.” In the context of 1 John, “Greater is the one in you than the one who is in the world.”
Even if there are those determined to bump you off your stride, even if you run into roadblocks, even if you fail from time to time (and you will fail because failure is a part of growth if you choose to grow from it), you already have within you what it takes to clear those hurdles. And please know that with every battle you win, you are preparing a path, with every hurdle you clear, you are making a way.
In team sports, we know an individual can only excel when their teammates excel. True champions in sport and in life...lift others up. They don’t tear them down...not even our most bitter rivals. The athletes in the arena, understand this. That’s because there is a mutual respect for the natural instinct to pursue excellence. All of us have the right to pursue excellence.
In 2022, on their way to a 2nd straight national championship, the UVA women’s swimming and diving team broke NCAA and American records in 4 different relays. In 2023, on their way to a 3rd straight national championship, they broke their own NCAA and American records in the same 4 relays from the year before. It didn’t happen because one swimmer swam her personal best. It happened because each of the four women on each of those four relay teams swam faster than they had ever swam in their life. Every single one of them swam a personal best when it mattered the most.
They did not chase success...they chased excellence...and they caught it. They believed in themselves and they believed in each other. They didn’t wait for permission or validation from anyone.
Whether it is in sports or not, whether it is as an individual or as a collective, what matters most is your motor...the fire within you.
So, that’s #1….Don’t wait on someone else to validate who you are and what you can become. You decide.
#2 Display empathy.
I purposely chose the word display because it is not enough to just have empathy.
I don’t have words to explain the pain of this past November or the last six months, but I do know this to be an absolute truth, every kind word and every kind gesture matters. You never know what someone is going through, but please know that an act of kindness can be THE difference for someone.
Maya Angelou once said, “I think we all have empathy, we may not have enough courage to display it.”
Empathy, “a person’s ability to share and understand the experiences of others” and maybe that’s why it takes courage to display empathy. We don’t always want to understand someone else’s experiences and we don’t always want to share in someone else’s experiences because we know some experiences come with great pain and with great sacrifice. In other words, it sometimes takes courage to show you care about the suffering of others.
My faith requires it of me and because it is part of my DNA, I couldn’t change it if I wanted to. The best sports analogy I have for empathy is really not a sports example, it is an example of basic humanity. On the night of November 14, 2022, in this very space we occupy this morning, thousands of students, faculty, staff and community members came together in a show of empathy I have never seen in-person before and probably will never see again. Nothing else mattered that night, not race, not religion, not socioeconomic status, not political party, not policy differences. Without one spoken word, the people of this community said in unison with their movement and spirit, “we care about each other.”
Please do not forget what we have been through together and may it compel you to show you care about the suffering and the experiences of others. You are the ones responsible for that vigil. You...students. You are bright and shining examples of the best we have to offer. We need your courageous spirit. We need your innovation, your creativity, your stubbornness, your toughness, your brilliance, your grit and...we need your compassion. We need each of you and we need all of you.
So, two things: Don’t wait on someone else to validate who you are and what you can become AND Display Empathy.
I’d like to close by revisiting the story of the gentleman from Georgia. As you can imagine, he had a challenging life, but he was a fighter. He never compromised his faith, his integrity, his work ethic, his humility, his resilience, his empathy for others. A life that saw him and his wife (and I am not mis-speaking when I say this)....he and his wife brought 19 children into this world instilling in their children those same values. The last of those 19 children was a boy born in 1934 who, to no one’s surprise, displayed the same values of his father. After serving his country, that son worked and retired as a custodian and he and his wife instilled those same values in their two children. One of those two children stands before you today as your speaker. I never knew my grandfather because he passed away before I was born, but I am inspired by everything he stood for and everything he was able to accomplish. I often think about him and my dad and the heartbreak of untapped potential...
We are inspired by some people because of what they do. We are inspired by others because of who they are. The people who inspire me…have both. I am inspired by individuals because of who they are and what they do. The people who inspire me are from all walks of life. Poor, rich, black, brown, white, Christian, non-Christian, Democrats, Republicans, Independents, college graduates, non-college graduates, centered, marginalized and so on. The people who inspire me are as diverse as the people I hope I serve...as diverse as the people I hope I lead...as diverse as the people I hope I inspire.
Serve. Lead. Inspire. Serve. Lead. Inspire. Championship-level service...serves all. Championship-level leadership...leads everyone. Championship-level inspiration...inspires without exclusion. Each of you have your own story. Your own journey. Do not leave anything untapped and I challenge you to be a positive force for good for everyone. I love you and may the Good Lord bless you. Go Hoos!
Presented by Carla Williams
Vice President for Intercollegiate Athletics