Once a year in early February, every student at the College of William and Mary gets the chance to celebrate their school. The only problem is that most choose not to. As the second oldest university in the nation, the College takes pride in its history. However, on this year’s Charter Day, the 327th birthday of the College, a time when students, faculty and alumni alike should have been enthusiastically celebrating the continuing legacy of the College, the students were unfortunately absent.
Granted, this year’s Charter Day Ceremony was not exactly a rave, but it was still an engaging and satisfying event of which every student should have taken full advantage. Attendees heard from a variety of speakers, from College President Katherine Rowe and College Chancellor Robert Gates to student speaker Tanner Braman ‘20 and three distinguished honorary diploma recipients.
The most moving moment of the afternoon came from Christy Coleman, the first honorary diploma recipient and the Executive Director of the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Coleman reflected on her two years at the College in an emotional speech as she detailed her withdrawal from the school and how she never imagined she would be back to receive a degree.
Each of the honorary diploma recipients received a standing ovation from the audience, and those that were in the room seemed quite pleased with the ceremony, which also included performances from Griffin Bhangra, Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia, the Choir and the Pep Band, highlighting the diverse talent on display at the College.
It was perhaps the quality of the ceremony itself that made it all the more disappointing that the majority of those in attendance were not students. Even with heavy alumni presence, Kaplan Arena was only at a fraction of its total capacity. Of the students who did participate, it appeared that the vast majority were either freshmen or seniors.
This poses a serious challenge for the school, where students only feel compelled to attend events when it is their first opportunity or last chance.
In addition to the Charter Day Ceremony itself, the College also hosted a variety of supporting events throughout Charter Day Weekend. The range of events provided something for everyone, especially if they were unable to attend the ceremony. However, some of these events were also poorly attended. On the evening before Charter Day, the College hosted a discussion on foreign policy between Gates, a former Director of the CIA and Secretary of Defense, and Virginia Senator Tim Kaine. Despite the unique opportunity the discussion presented and the quality of the two guests, Commonwealth Auditorium was nowhere near capacity and at times it seemed as though more students were outside protesting Gates’ presence than were inside listening to the discussion.
Diverging from the more somber events, the school also hosted a selection of opportunities designed specifically for students that were much more well received. AMP hosted comedian Jaboukie Young-White to a packed house in the same Commonwealth Auditorium that Gates and Kaine could not fill, and the #Charnival that Rowe promoted in her speech was also at full capacity, despite being moved into the Commons Dining Hall due to the all too coincidental “gale” warnings which likely lowered attendance.
It is unfortunate that students flock to see comedic performances and get free food while events featuring prominent national leaders and celebrations of the school remain underattended. However, it speaks to the low marketing and importance that Charter Day received from the administration in comparison to events such as Homecoming Weekend and Family Weekend.
It is up to the administration to continue to innovate with regards to the Charter Day Ceremony to ensure that its long-standing attendance problems subside and Charter Day remains relevant to the College.
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