Washington and Lee honors Class of 2020 at belated 233rd Commencement

Washington and Lee UniversityMembers of the undergraduate and law classes of 2020 returned to Washington and Lee University on Sept. 11 for an event they’ve eagerly awaited: their official, in-person Commencement ceremony, which was postponed for more than 500 days amid the COVID-19 public health crisis.

Both classes received their degrees at a virtual ceremony honoring them in May 2020, but students were excited to come back to Lexington and celebrate on campus with family and friends.

President William Dudley, who delivered the Commencement address, told the students who returned for the ceremony that the qualities they were steeped in as W&L students – honesty, civility, empathy, trustworthiness – have prepared them well for success in a world still reeling from the pandemic and beset by polarization.

“At this institution, you have learned to treat one another with respect, to express your own views with candor, and to listen carefully to the views of others,” Dudley said. “These habits – of intellect and character – are what the world needs to chip away at partisanship and polarization, to find and forge more common ground, and to foster kindness and decency toward everyone, regardless of our differences and disagreements. Each and every one of you is well prepared to contribute to this monumentally important task. I urge you to embrace it, to set an example, and to lead the way.”

Having the university president give the Commencement address is a custom at W&L that dates back to the 1930s. In his speech, Dudley marveled at the significant challenges the Class of 2020 has had to navigate just since they wrapped up their senior year, including COVID-19 and its ripple effect around the globe, the murder of George Floyd, the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and the university’s own examination of its institutional history.

Despite all that, he said, he is confident that the classes of 2020 are ready not only to succeed, but to lead.

“And heaven knows we need your leadership more than ever,” he said. “Our world is plagued by serious problems that cannot be addressed without the mature and constructive participation of people who often see things in conflicting ways. Working effectively on any complex problem requires interpreting information, evaluating courses of action, making good faith efforts to persuade those with whom we disagree, and being willing to compromise when our disagreements cannot be fully resolved.”

Joining Dudley on the platform on Saturday were the two Class of 2020 recipients of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, Joëlle Simeu, of Media, Pennsylvania, and Julio Hidalgo Lopez, of Saint Joseph, Missouri. Simeu and Hidalgo Lopez offered readings as part of the Commencement program. The two were selected by the faculty as individuals who best demonstrate high ideals of living, spiritual qualities and generous service to others.

Matthew O’Neal Withers of Collinsville, Virginia, was named valedictorian of the undergraduate Class of 2020. Withers graduated summa cum laude with a B.S. in physics. He is a Johnson Scholar and member of Phi Beta Kappa and Phi Eta Sigma honor societies.

Degrees were conferred upon the Class of 2020 on Thursday, May 28, 2020, in a virtual ceremony, but students were promised a traditional, in-person Commencement as soon as it was safe to do so. The date and details of the celebrations were planned in part following input from a university committee featuring representatives from the classes of 2020. A luncheon for all guests followed Commencement on Cannan Green. Later that night, the classes enjoyed separate parties with dinner and music, and the festivities concluded with fireworks after dark.

A ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks took place on the steps of Huntley Hall before the Commencement event, beginning with a ceremonial tolling of the University Chapel bells at 8:46 a.m., the time the first plane struck a World Trade Center tower.

View the entire Commencement ceremony album online at columns.wlu.edu/soc/2020-commencement/.


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