The graduates and roughly 4,000 well- wishers gathered in the David J. Prior Convocation Center to avoid threatening weather, but the change from the initial outdoor location proved a fitting touch.
The UVa-Wise Class of 2013 became the first graduating class to use the new Convocation Center, named after the college’s beloved late chancellor. Prior died unexpectedly more than a year ago in the seventh year of his tenure, and the facility that hosted Saturday’s commencement exercises was one of the late chancellor’s most notable achievements.
New Chancellor Donna P. Henry, just getting settled into the post since arriving in early February, offered a special acknowledgement of Prior’s widow, Merry, and urged graduates to follow Prior’s own example to take on “your responsibility to be a leader in your communities, nation and the world.”
It was a theme echoed by the governor, who recalled being escorted through the Convocation Center by Prior while it was still under construction. McDonnell told graduates the degrees bestowed upon them on Saturday represent “opportunities to succeed” but “aren’t guarantees of success. What you do with your degree and your God-given talents is up to you.”
McDonnell told graduates that life is fleeting “so make the most of it,” and no matter their future endeavors to always keep in mind “service to others, service to your country. You have a duty and a privilege to serve one another.”
The governor, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, made special mention of Heath Calhoun of Grundy who lost both legs while serving with the 101st Airborne in Iraq, and how Calhoun chose to seize opportunities and move forward with his life with great success.
“Service is the highest calling,” McDonnell said, and reminded that Jesus told his own apostles that he came “not to be served, but to serve.”
The governor exhorted graduates to “get involved and make a difference” because liberties cannot be taken for granted. He urged graduates to pursue the American Dream “to keep it alive” and while they’re at it, Virginia isn’t a bad place to do it.
“If you are going to be an artist, doctor, lawyer, musician, counselor, teacher, whatever it may be, pursue your profession in Virginia,” he said. “We need you to stay here and continue to make the commonwealth of Virginia great.”
The UVa-Wise Class of 2013 was typical in its eclectic makeup, including nontraditional students like 48-year-old Kimberly Denise Marshall Mullins of the Wise area. Thirty years after graduating high school Mullins — a wife and mother who raised a son, ran a business, beat breast cancer and kept moving forward in spite of knee replacement surgery — was there Saturday to receive her bachelor of arts degree in liberal arts and science.
That degree is Mullins’ ticket toward achieving her goal of becoming a math teacher.
And there was the more traditional student in the form of 22-year-old April Hall, getting her degree in sociology and, in doing so, giving back to her parents, Ron and Diane Hall of Chesapeake, a fine sense of achievement all their own.
“She’s number six,” said Hall’s father. “Our sixth child. The sixth to finish college. She’s had an outstanding experience here at UVa-Wise. Just an outstanding experience. Her goal is to be a social worker in the public schools.”
Delegate Terry Kilgore, R-Gate City, attended Saturday’s commencement exercises as well. His daughter, Kayla, was getting her degree from UVa-Wise in education.
“Being here not only as a dad but as a legislator, it’s just wonderful to see this college grow,” Kilgore, himself a UVa-Wise grad when it was still called Clinch Valley College, said. “We’ve got the governor in his last year in office here. It’s just a big day, and I can’t get over what an economic impact this college means to this region. This college will continue to grow and be a big economic engine for this region.”
And for his fellow graduates, perhaps the most fitting words of all came from Zachary E. Holcomb of Big Stone Gap, the honorary speaker for the Class of ’13 taking his new chemistry degree to Duke’s medical school this fall.
For the rest of their lives if anyone says the words, “Hunker down,” said Holcomb, “you will know what they mean,” eliciting a burst of knowing laughter from his classmates and nearly all else in attendance.
When the college went into lockdown mode this academic year as a result of what turned out to be, thankfully, a hoax, a college official advised students to “hunker down” until further notice. Those like Holcomb from Southwest Virginia knew exactly what that meant.