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Valedictory Exercises 2022: Sampson Speech

Ralph Sampson Jr.
Valedictory Exercises, May 20, 2022
University of Virginia

Hello UVA!

Wahoowa!  Now most people around the country don’t know what that means, but we do.  

Distinguished guests, families, friends, and most of all the Class of 2022, thank you for the honor of spending this time with you.  To the parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, brothers, sisters, and others who are here that stood by this class and cheered them on and helped them get here today, this is your day as well.  Let’s give them a big round of applause.  

Don’t want to stir up any rivals but I want to know who is in the house:
College of Arts & Sciences
School of Engineering and Applied Science
McIntire School of Commerce
School of Architecture
Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy
School of Nursing
School of Education and Human Development
School of Continuing and Professional Studies

All the schools here are really, really good.  I graduated in 1983 with a degree in Rhetoric and Mass Communications, which doesn’t exist anymore. Obviously things have changed over the years with no communications major, but that’s okay.  I had the chance to earn my degree with some great people and I had fun doing it.  

I know you are excited today!  You might be a little tired as well.  Some of you may have been up all night making sure your credits were in order.  Some of you stayed up too late and ended up at the White Spot eating a Gus burger.  But you all worked hard to get here today.  During your time here, you have made lifelong friends and discovered exactly how you are made.

The UVA grind has strengthened your sense of purpose and ambition.  The spirit of achievement and special responsibilities has defined this campus since 1819 when Thomas Jefferson founded UVA and inaugurated a bold experiment – a public university designed to advance human knowledge, educate leaders, and cultivate and inform citizenry.  More than two centuries later, this vision is still thriving across Grounds and throughout the world.  

During the opening of my restaurant in Barracks Road, a young UVA student handed me a letter and asked if I would speak at this year’s graduation.  I never thought I would be asked to speak at UVA’s graduation. When I told my parents that I was given the honor to speak today, they said “Now you have arrived!”.  I am grateful that my mom and dad are here today.  

Over the past few days, I have walked the Grounds and asked a number of today’s graduates what their experience here was like and what they will take away. I have taken a look back at my time at UVA and what it meant to me.  It is not the classes; it is the UVA experience – walking the Lawn, hanging out on The Corner, participating in student organizations, etc.  I am sure most of you have some of the same feelings.  

I came from Harrisonburg High School.  I got recruited fairly heavily by several major universities.  When I came into the high school gymnasium to announce where I was going, there were two thousand people in the stands.  My high school coach was there along with my mom and dad.  When I came into the arena, I told my mom I was still undecided – I didn’t know where I wanted to go.  She told me you can make the decision today, because we are tired of going through this mess.  We called Coach Holland – I chose Virginia over Kentucky, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech.   Why did I choose UVA – it was a great school academically, it is in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and it had an amazing basketball coach – Coach Terry Holland.  

After I announced my decision, I was driving around and heard Howard Cosell on the radio.  Cosell questioned why I had chosen UVA.  He said that I would never graduate given the University’s high academic standards.  That was my motivation.  That is why I returned after my freshman year, my sophomore year, and my junior year – even though I was being heavily recruited to leave school and go to the NBA.  

After my freshman year, Red Aurbach came to my parents’ house in Harrisonburg.  He sat a briefcase with a million dollars on the dining room table and invited me to come play for the Boston Celtics.   I was two hundred pounds soaking wet – I did not feel I was strong enough to play in the NBA – so I decided to return to UVA.  

In my second year, we are in the Final Four – unfortunately, we get beat by North Carolina.  I was national player of the year – I had gained 20 pounds.  I had a chance to go to the NBA after my second year and also after my third year.  I decided to return to UVA for three reasons, I was having fun and I loved my teammates; two, my parents could see me play; and three, I was on track to graduate.  I remember my graduation day – it was a rainy day here on the Lawn.  It wasn’t a good weather day, but it was fun as all get out.  I hope you enjoy your walk down the Lawn this weekend.

I want to leave you with this – I created this word “map” which stands for motivation, attitude, and plan.  What is your map?  What’s next?  What motivates you?  For me, it was Howard Cosell, my family, my teammates – they all motivated me.  Being self-motivated to get a good education, do well at work, do well with your career – will lead to success no matter what you do.  The next letter in map stands for attitude.  You can have a bad attitude, or you can have a good attitude.  We all have down days, but we also have a lot of good days.  It’s your attitude, not your aptitude that will determine your altitude.  How you shape your attitude will lead to success.  The last letter is “P” for plan.  Your parents had a plan when they gave you life.  They helped get you here today.  What is your plan as you leave this place?  How will you make sure you stick to the plan?  Do you have a plan B?  

Stay connected to UVA and to the friends you made here.  There are alumni chapters all over this country and the world.  Find the one closest to you and be involved.  Stay connected because there’s no other place like UVA in the world.  

Thank you for having me.  Good luck!