When Patton Oswalt ’91 was a student at William & Mary, his biggest concerns included making sure a professor correctly identified the Star Trek character who was responsible for firing the phasers.
What students face today is far more serious, Oswalt said to the university’s Class of 2023.
“Your concerns as you stumble out into reality tomorrow are massive,” he said. “Democracy is crumbling. Truth is up for grabs. The planet is trying to kill us, and loneliness is driving everyone insane.”
Oswalt added that the graduates would have to “fight for every scrap” of their humanity and dignity.
“You do not have a choice but to be anything but extraordinary,” he said. “Those are the times we’re living in right now. And it’s been amazing. It’s been truly amazing to see how your generation has rebelled against every bad habit of mine and every generation that came before me.”
Oswalt, a comedian, author and actor, addressed the graduates during W&M’s 2023 Commencement ceremony Friday night in Zable Stadium. In addition to serving as Commencement speaker, Oswalt received an honorary degree at the event, something he described as very surreal because he was “not the best student,” he said in a video.
“This is going out to all of the B- students; there is a life for you in the world,” he said.
Henry C. “Hank” Wolf ’64, J.D. ’66, a former W&M rector and retired chief financial officer of Norfolk Southern, also received an honorary degree at the event. His son, Rich Wolf, surprised him on stage to help bestow the academic hood.
Throughout Commencement weekend, the university bestowed approximately 1,278 undergraduate degrees and 777 graduate degrees. In addition to Friday night’s main ceremony, the festivities included dozens of smaller ceremonies and receptions hosted by schools, departments, affinity groups and other organizations. At its departmental event, the Department of Computer Science celebrated the 35th anniversary of its first doctorate.
Among those cheering on the Class of 2023 was Building Services Custodial Manager Malinda Cooke, who has worked at the university for nearly 43 years. Cooke’s daughter, Erica, graduated from the university’s part-time Master of Business Administration program this weekend. She took classes while also working six days a week and raising two children, with Cooke and her husband helping out.
“I’m really excited for her,” said Cooke. “I don’t know how she did it. I’m so proud.”
‘It’s time to live’
Oswalt praised the graduates for their commitment to values-based living and spreading understanding, forgiveness and honesty.
“You’ve rejected that whole 24/7, no days off grind,” he said. “You’ve rejected apathy. You’ve rejected ignoring your mental health. … You’ve rejected alienation and cruelty. You rejected not trying to include everyone, and you’ve rejected not looking out for each other — and those are hard things to reject. Because accepting them sometimes makes life way easier.
“If you just shut off your soul from the world, life is way easier. It’s also way less colorful. It’s way less complicated, way less nourishing and way less memorable.”
Oswalt encouraged the graduates to take time to “wander easy,” noting that everything extraordinary in his life “came from the wandering.”
“There are people out there who want to manage every moment,” he said. “They want to divvy up every dream, and they want to commodify every crazy creative caprice that springs out of your cranium. Don’t let them. Be human in all of its bedlam and beauty and madness and mercy for as long as you can and in any way you can.”
Referencing the movie “Blade Runner,” Oswalt told graduates that the last scene — one of its most memorable — had been improvised.
“That is the wandering and the chaos and the madness that you have to seek out,” he said. “So, what I say to all of you is that I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. I’ve seen porta potties on fire from a helicopter above Woodstock ’99. I’ve seen Charlize Theron glitter in the dark from the backstage wings of the Oscars.
“All of these moments, and far better ones, are waiting to be experienced and marveled at by every one of you. It’s time to live.”
Striving for belonging, democracy
Just as Oswalt praised the Class of 2023 for its inclusivity, the student Commencement speaker applauded his fellow graduates for striving toward W&M’s value of belonging and asked whether it might one day be a universal experience at the university.
“I’m not asking that you answer in the affirmative today,” said Abdi Hassan ’23. “I’m certainly not asking that you answer with such clarity or conviction as I have. What I am asking is that you remain open to the idea. That you do not give up on yourself, because we surely will not give up on you.”
W&M President Katherine A. Rowe remarked that the graduates had much to be proud of, “particularly the care and dedication and grit you showed to make belonging as close to a true value as we can make it here every day.
“Many of you started college months before a pandemic that forced us to re-think every assumption we had about how we live and learn. And yet, you attained a wide-ranging and deep education, and we created deep and lasting relationships.”
Part of creating those relationships involved learning how to engage in an open exchange of ideas and bridge differences, said W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’95.
“That engagement is the core element of a W&M education,” he said, adding that today it is rare.
Part of William & Mary’s Vision 2026 strategic plan looks to address that issue through its democracy initiative.
“As graduates of this university, you have a responsibility to defend our democracy, to keep perfecting and reshaping it,” he said. “Noting the extraordinary manner in which the Class of 2023 has coped with incredible obstacles already, I have no doubt you are up to this challenge.”
In addition to the two honorary degrees bestowed during the ceremony, a number of other W&M faculty, staff, students and alumni were recognized.
The Lord Botetourt Medal was awarded to William Carlos Noel II ’23, and the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup went to Sarah Jean Larimer ’23. Andrew Derik Corso Ph.D. ’23 received the Thatcher Prize for Excellence in Graduate and Professional Study.
The Thomas Ashley Graves Jr. Awards for Sustained Excellence in Teaching went to Associate Professor of Business Inga Carboni and Associate Professor of Hispanic Studies Carla Buck. And the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards went to Ephraim Amponsah Takyi ’23, Michaela-Katherine Gabrielle Taylor ’23 and Deborah Cheesebro, associate vice president for public safety and chief of William & Mary Police who is soon retiring.
Others acknowledged during the ceremony included this year’s Honorary Alumni and the recipients of the Duke Award and Values in Action Awards.
In Rowe’s closing remarks, she acknowledged another member of the W&M community who was recently honored — but on the national stage. Jill Ellis ’88, L.H.D. ’16. Ellis, former coach of the World Cup-winning U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team, was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame on May 6.
“Coach Ellis says when you come to the crossroads of a decision, always choose bold. The Class of 2023 knows something about choosing bold,” Rowe said. For example, they made Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved the site of the Community Values Pledge.
“Trust in the capacities you learned here to make traditions new and the capacities you grew on the path of this degree,” Rowe said.
Those capacities include resourcefulness, the ability to listen for stories that matter and the capacity to grow with others.
“When you come to a crossroads, with no clear way forward, know that you are ready for the challenge,” she said. “And you have two challenges now that you can heed, both of which are true and both of which are great advice: Wander easy and always choose bold.”
Erin Jay, Senior Associate Director of University News