As the first group of graduates to endure two-plus years of the COVID-19 pandemic while in college, William & Mary’s Class of 2022 knows a little something about unexpected blowouts along the racecourse of life.

“Anything can happen, good or bad,” Mellody Hobson told graduates. “You might be in the pole position and just easily cruise to victory. There will also be times when you’re speeding along and you experience a blowout … and when that blowout occurs, your reaction will determine if you spin out of control or if you stay on track and keep moving forward. A pandemic qualifies as a blowout.

“You probably didn’t get the college experience that you expected. I guarantee the past two years have made you more resilient, and that internal strength will serve you for the rest of your lives.”

Hobson, a nationally recognized expert on financial literacy and chair of the Starbucks board of directors, spoke at W&M’s undergraduate Commencement ceremony Friday night in Zable Stadium. She also received an honorary degree from the university, along with William & Mary alumna Rep. Stephanie Murphy ’00, the first Vietnamese-American woman elected to the U.S. Congress.

The event was part of the university’s 2022 Commencement weekend, which included a ceremony for graduate students on Saturday morning along with multiple departmental events and other traditions. Throughout the weekend, a total of 1,620 baccalaureate degrees and 740 graduate degrees were conferred.

“I have no doubt that this chapter in William & Mary’s storied history will be remembered with pride for the resilience, determination and, yes, courage this campus community has shown over the past 24 months,” Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98, told graduates, adding that they now have a responsibility to defend, protect and reshape democracy.

“Noting the extraordinary manner in which the Class of 2022 has coped with incredible obstacles already, I have no doubt you are up to this challenge.”

‘Never give up’

Hobson was originally scheduled to speak at W&M’s May 2020 Commencement ceremony, which was transformed into a virtual event due to the spread of COVID-19. As she addressed graduates Friday night, she told them that she would not lecture on cultivating resilience since that is something they had mastered. Instead, she focused on “how you can snatch victory from the jaws of disappointment,” using Formula One racing as a metaphor.

Hobson came to love the sport after she was introduced to it by her husband, filmmaker George Lucas (“Yoda’s dad,” Hobson joked). She became friends with F1 racing superstar Lewis Hamilton, and they bonded over their shared sense of discipline, something that helped her progress from one of six children being raised by a single mother in Chicago to her current position as co-CEO and president of Ariel Investments.

“People think plans are the same as purpose. They are not,” Hobson said. “Plans are a strategy. Purpose is a calling. It means determining what matters most to you. And if you’re panicking right now because you’re thinking I don’t have a purpose, stop panicking — don’t. I urge you to view life not as a series of jobs, but as an effort to discover what your heart truly wants.”

Mellody Hobson wears academic regalia while standing at a podium with a sign saying William & Mary
Mellody Hobson speaks to the graduates at the undergraduate ceremony Friday night. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Recalling the final race of the Grand Prix 2021 season in which Hamilton lost to Max Verstappen due to a questionable call by officials, Hobson said that Hamilton earned hero status by choosing to be gracious about the loss. At a recent race in which Hamilton came in sixth, he told Hobson afterward, “We never give up.”

“I guarantee the past two years have made you more resilient, and that internal strength will serve you for the rest of your lives,” she said. “A new phase of your life starts now. But here’s the thing: New phases start all the time. Every day brings new opportunities, new relationships, new experiences, new chances to learn, new chances to win.”

Hobson encouraged the graduates to meet every opportunity with enthusiasm and every challenge with discipline.

“I hope you always believe you can win,” she said. “And in the event that you don’t win, I hope you never give up.”

After receiving her honorary degree, Murphy recalled her family’s own experience with resilience as refugees from Vietnam who were rescued at sea by the U.S. Navy.

“Regardless of how modest your upbringing, regardless of where your parents are from, regardless of your color or creed, regardless of your gender, regardless of who you love — regardless of all these factors, you can overcome the odds and achieve your personal and professional dreams,” she said.

“To some degree, your success depends on your own efforts, but it helps so much to have people in your corner and place that’s got your back. And that’s exactly what I had at William & Mary.”

Honors and new aspects

In addition to the honorary degrees, W&M honored multiple members of the campus community during its Commencement ceremonies. In addition to this year’s honorary alumni, Duke Award winner and Values in Action recipients being recognized, the Lord Botetourt Medal, James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup, Thatcher Prize for Excellence, Graves Award and Sullivan Awards were presented.

Additionally, President Katherine A. Rowe recognized the work of the Public Health Advisory Team throughout the pandemic.

“This team has worked intensely for 24 months – meeting multiple times a week,” Rowe said. “So I want to take this moment for everyone in our community to acknowledge how much we have benefited from their expert analysis of a changing public health environment.”

The weekend also included some new aspects. During the Khatalampay Ceremony for Asian, Pacific Islander and Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian (APIM) graduates, participants received a stole designed by Roberto Jamora, the Asian Centennial’s distinguished fine arts fellow. The design features the Asian Centennial flower logo to represent all of the university’s APIM groups and incorporates purple, pink, green and gold colors. Its name comes from a combination of multiple scarf traditions across Asia and the Middle East.

People wearing caps and gowns stand next to a brick memorial
Participants in the Donning of the Kente ceremony pose for a photo next to Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved. (Photo courtesy of Chon Glover)

While the Donning of the Kente ceremony for Black graduates has been taking place for years, this year was the first time the participants were able to walk through Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved together and take a photo. The memorial was dedicated on May 7.

‘Unprecedented, as usual’

Rowe started at William & Mary in July 2018, just a month before the Class of 2022 arrived to begin their own journey at the university. As part of a COLL 150 assignment, the class created a slogan for the university: “Join the tradition. Make history.” 

“We had no idea what that would be like, but you have certainly fulfilled that invitation in every way,” Rowe said.

As the pandemic hit, Rowe watched as the campus community redefined the word “normal” – a word that the W&M president once avoided.

“Yet about a month ago I lost my fear,” she said. “Not because we are back to the before times of 2019, but because my understanding of ‘normal’ has fundamentally changed. What normal means to me now is: always ready to adapt, so that we sustain what we value most.”

People wearing caps and gowns stand together in rows
Graduate students participate in Saturday morning’s ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

The latest cohort of freshmen recently created another new slogan for the university through the same COLL 150 class, landing on: “William & Mary: unprecedented, as usual.”

“The 2022 cohort of new students that you welcomed, hosted and mentored this year, that’s what you taught them,” Rowe told the graduates. “You lifted each other on our long climb out of pandemic, and we are still climbing.

“You helped each other recognize that the best sense of the word ‘normal’ is always going to be ready to change in a way that advances what we value most. Thank you for helping me see that clearly. I will always be grateful and immensely proud to be part of this amazing class. Unprecedented is what you do, as usual – because that’s the way we are now, the way W&M is now.”

, Senior Associate Director of University News