In one of the College of William and Mary’s biggest traditions, Judge Rebecca Beach Smith ’71, J.D. ’79 will welcome freshmen by speaking at Opening Convocation Aug. 26 at 4:30 p.m.
“I feel honored and somewhat nostalgic, as it’s been 44 years since I was sitting out there as an entering freshman with my parents,” Smith said.
Smith attended the College as an undergraduate before earning a master’s degree at the University of Virginia in 1973. She later returned to the College to earn a law degree and worked as a lawyer in Norfolk until she was appointed as a federal judge of the Eastern Virginia District Court in 1988.
Smith was the first female federal judge in Virginia.
“I always wanted to do law, so at age 27 I commuted to law school from Norfolk,” Smith said. “It was the time that I realized in my career that I wanted to try something that I had always in the back of my mind wanted to do. I did, and I loved it, and this is where I landed.”
While building her law career, Smith has remained closely tied to the College. Smith served on the Alumni Association board of directors from 1990 to 1996 and spent one year as board president. Smith received the alumni medallion in 1997, the highest honor an alumni can receive.
“I was there for the groundbreaking of the new Alumni House that we have. I am very proud to have won the alumni medallion,” Smith said. “I routinely come back to sit on moot courts with the law school and I hope that giving this Convocation speech will be a way to contribute.”
Returning for Convocation brings back memories of one of Smith’s favorite traditions at the College.
“It starts your life at William and Mary, and William and Mary is a school of tradition,” Smith said. “If you have accepted admission there you know that, but that doesn’t mean that things can’t change and that you can’t build upon tradition.”
Smith recalls a tradition she was not particularly fond of during her freshman year.
“I had to wear a duck beanie on the first week of school which meant I was a freshman. You had to stop and salute the upperclassmen,” Smith said. “I am glad that tradition went by the way. I think it is better to integrate the freshmen than [to] make them stand out with a green and yellow duck beanie.”
While the beanie tradition was not her favorite, Smith believes others are significant.
“Sometimes traditions are there and they are silly and sometimes traditions are there and you look back on them and they have even more meaning,” Smith said.
For Smith, Convocation signified the beginning of a new phase in her life.
“It was the first time I had lived completely independently. It’s the time I started my growth as a young adult. I strengthened my value system and developed new values,” Smith said. “William and Mary provided an outstanding platform for me to move into my adult life and career, and I will always be able to treasure those four years.”
For faculty like College President Taylor Reveley, Convocation is a time for the College community to come together at the beginning of the year to welcome in the freshmen.
“It makes good sense at the outset of each academic year to bring the campus community together for these rites,” Reveley said. “It’s also the occasion where our new students get an immersion in William and Mary traditions as they walk through the Wren Building with its bell tolling in their honor.”
Orientation Aides who have spent the past week welcoming freshmen and transfers on a more personal level are able to watch new students come together during Convocation. For Orientation Aide Steve Dachert ’13, it’s a rewarding experience.
“It’s really a blast because it is kind of a culmination of all of the work you have put into Orientation,” Dachert said. “It’s kind of cool to see after a few days of classes how much your hall has bonded and to see them welcomed by the William and Mary community when they pass through the Wren building.”
As Smith returns to the College next week, Smith is reminded of the strength of the institution that began her adult life and continues to be a part of her life as an alumna.
“William and Mary is the strongest that its ever been,” Smith said. “It’s a wonderful place to spend four years, and it’s the finest liberal arts education that I know of.”