2019 commencement encourages graduates to remember College traditions

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When Glenn Close ’74, D.A. ’89 graduated 45 years ago, she was the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. COURTESY PHOTO / WM.EDU

With rain looming overhead, the College of William and Mary held its commencement ceremony for the Class of 2019 in Zable Stadium Saturday May 12. During her opening remarks, Rowe thanked the students, faculty, parents and BOV and honored the faculty and honorary degree awardees of the year. Rowe then welcomed former Secretary of Defense and Chancellor Robert Gates ’65 to the podium for yet another welcome.

The chapel bells rang as Gates readied his speech — one laced with humor and invocations to the graduating class.

“The last exam has been taken, final paper written, final parking ticket paid, the registrar has double checked and, yes, you have indeed made it through one of the most rigorous educations in the world,” Gates said to the new graduates.

“The last exam has been taken, final paper written, final parking ticket paid, the registrar has double checked and, yes, you have indeed made it through one of the most rigorous educations in the world,” Gates said to the new graduates.

After his speech, Gates made way for the conferring of honorary degrees. Honorary doctoral degrees were awarded in Humane Letters, Arts and Laws to three women who pose excellence in the fields: Jane Batten ’17, Denyce Graves and Sybil Shainwald ’48.

For the conferring of Glenn Close’s Honorary Fellowship, Gates was then joined by Rowe and Rector John Littel. Throughout the College’s history, only two others have been presented with this honor, Prince Charles and Princess Margriet.

“Thank you, Chancellor Gates, Rector Littel and President Rowe for this great, great honor. I am humbled and deeply moved to receive this from a community that had everything to do with who I am today,” Close said. “And I am particularly proud to be on this stage with President Katherine Rowe. I’m pretty sure King William is spinning in his grave. God bless him!”

When Close graduated 45 years ago, she was the first woman in her family to earn a college degree. Her mother had never finished high school and her grandmother had never attended college. For Close, a great bit of courage was needed to take the first steps to enroll at the College.

“That’s what I’d been secretly feeling for a long, long time, but I hadn’t had the courage to face it and do something about it. Really? Is this who I really am,” Close said.

Close then discussed how it was her ability to question closely-held beliefs that lead her to where she is today.

“I wanted to tell you about why I ended up here because I have learned how important it is to have a healthy dose of skepticism,” Close said. “I don’t mean cynicism or contempt, I mean the crucial ability to question and assess — from a dispassionate, objective point of view — whatever beliefs or tribes you eventually choose to espouse. It doesn’t come to me naturally. I had been raised to be a total believer, to not question. But for me, coming into this ideas-rich community, having had all my beliefs and behaviors dictated to me from the age of 7, it was vital that I learn how to question. You have a much harder time of it now than I ever had.”

For Close, consideration of the added pressures of social media makes college all the more difficult for students today.

“I think my mind would have exploded,” Close said. “I didn’t have that insistent, seductive noise in my pocket and at my fingertips. Even now, I try to question, but how do I maintain my individuality without thinking that I am somehow not relevant, not hip enough, rich enough, not posting enough, that I don’t have enough followers.

Notable for famous roles on the silver screen for which she has received many awards, Close is also a philanthropist and focuses her activism on mental health initiatives. Ten years ago, Close and her family established an organization called Bring Change to Mind. To underpin her centralized theme, kindness, Close spoke more of her organization’s drive to erase the stigma of mental health, receiving many ovations from the crowd.

“[We] founded an organization called Bring Change to Mind to fight against the stigma around mental illness because they found that stigma is as hard — sometimes harder — than the diseases themselves,” Close said. “The fact is that, conservatively, one in six of us in this room is touched in some way by mental illness. It makes absolutely no sense to me that we don’t talk about it like any other chronic illness. Starting the conversation is the first step.”

By igniting, or perhaps reigniting, an awareness of the stigma of mental health, Close prepared the graduating class to enter the world with a persistent sense of consciousness and gentleness.

“Kindness,” Close said. “It’s a simple word, but it is essential if we are to survive as a species on this planet. [Now], I’m going to cook a hamburger and some zucchini.”

The choir sung as Close sat back down next to President Rowe. Up next was student speaker Rhea Sharma ’19 who chose the subject, “traditions never die.”

“It was at a pre freshman orientation when I knew I found my tribe,” Sharma said. “Wearing an oversized t-shirt that read ‘traditions never die,’ I felt at home.”

“It was at a pre freshman orientation when I knew I found my tribe,” Sharma said. “Wearing an oversized t-shirt that read ‘traditions never die,’ I felt at home.”

Sharma lead the audience through a reflection of her time at the College and through the relationships she made during her time as a student. A nostalgic moment was spent as she hesitantly closed her speech, looking out amongst her peers.

“When we celebrate our values, we feel a deep sense of belonging and we can do what truly unites us as proud William and Mary graduates,” Sharma said, leaving the audience on a high note.

As the final notes of the alma mater played, beach balls filled the air and Rowe announced the official end of the 2018-2019 school year. Left with relics of kindness and symbols of greatness, the graduating class left with one important message in mind: tradition lives on.