Even the most storied traditions can feel brand new.

When the doors of the Wren Building opened at the end of William & Mary’s Opening Convocation ceremony Wednesday night, the university’s newest students didn’t fully grasp what was waiting for them on the other side.

A throng of people, including upperclassmen, faculty and members of the local community, lined the walkway leading from the Wren Building to the Sunken Garden and spilled out onto the long stretch of grass, screaming in elation as members of the Class of 2027, transfers and new graduate students officially joined the W&M family. As the ceremony concluded, chants of “Let them through” could be heard from the Wren Courtyard to the Wren Yard.

“We were told throughout the week that Convocation was something fun, but in all honesty, I’m not sure how much we really knew what to expect,” said Kelson Lawrie ’27, from Somerset, New Jersey.

Lawrie was taking in the scene from the Sunken Garden afterward, talking with a group of friends as dozens of students waited to take pictures with William & Mary’s Griffin mascot.

“It felt so awesome,” said Nathan Kulp ’27, from McLean, Virginia, who did a dance as he made his way down the walkway. “It was so welcoming. It was so exciting. It was such a great start. I was having so much fun.”

“It felt very accepting and very wholesome,” Caroline Clarke ’27, from Arlington, Virginia said of the impact of the traditional walk through the Wren Building and the reception from the university community on the other side. “It felt like we were definitely a big part of the community.”

Opening Convocation is an annual tradition held on the first day of undergraduate classes to mark the beginning of the academic year and to welcome new students to the university. Belonging is one of William & Mary’s core values.

“You’re giving all of us the gift of another generation of young people with the qualities of mind and heart and spirit, and the talent to build a better future,” said W&M alumna Carolyn “Biddy” Martin ’73, L.H.D. ’12.

“There’s no telling what any one of you will do, but among you are people who will make critical discoveries, no doubt, write important books, transfer cutting-edge research into business ventures that multiply the fruits of that research for the good of the Earth and its population.”

Martin, a higher education leader, scholar and pioneer, served as the keynote speaker for the event, which marked the beginning of the university’s 331st academic year.

Students cheering at Opening Convocation
William & Mary students lined the path from the Wren Building to the Sunken Garden to cheer on the newest members of the student body. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Year of the Arts

In her remarks, William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe declared the 2023-2024 academic year as “The Year of the Arts,” a community-wide celebration of artistic accomplishments at the university with programs that will be bolstered by the completion of work on the Fine and Performing Arts Complex, which hosted its first classes earlier in the day.

Hands were raised eagerly in the crowd when Rowe asked if any students were among the first to attend classes at the complex, which will be dedicated in the fall during Homecoming & Reunion Weekend.

Rowe also lauded the university’s athletics teams, specifically mentioning the fourth-ranked football team that will open its highly-anticipated season at Campbell University on Aug. 31.

Two members of the W&M community were recognized for their contributions to community service. Clinical Associate Professor of Law Stacy Kern-Scheerer and Allisyn Lam ’25, received the 2023 President’s Award for Service to the Community.

Kern-Scheerer founded the Immigration Clinic at the Law School, and Lam is president and founding member of Food for All at William & Mary, which has distributed more than 2,500 meals to more than 200 individuals.

Students stream out of Wren Building
William & Mary’s new students streamed out of the Wren Building and into a sea of well wishers at the end of the 2023 Opening Convocation. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

‘Invent freely’

Convocation ties traditions of the past to those of the future. Rowe encouraged students to create their own traditions to add to the storied past of the university.

“At Convocation, we mark your arrival with joy and gratitude for everyone who has built community here,” Rowe said. “Now, it may be tempting to feel as if you are joining a community. After all, people have been cooking up traditions here that have built community for over 330 years. But it would be wrong to assume that community is given to you.

“Instead, in truth, it’s the community that you make, you will make and do make and everybody you are here with makes around you for each other and for ourselves.”

New traditions are created every year at William & Mary. For example, last year first-year students began taking a Community Values Pledge at Hearth: Memorial to the Enslaved, a tradition that was formed by student leaders to build community in a newly consecrated space.

Rowe said the traditional walk by first-year students through the Wren Building is the starting point of their quest to create their own new traditions.

“When you walk through the Wren Building, when we walk through together, we are honoring past and present and future traditions that you will invent here. Invent freely,” Rowe said.

William & Mary President Katherine A Rowe with students
William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe poses with students before the start of the 2023 Opening Convocation ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Partners in your journey

William & Mary Provost Peggy Agouris represented the faculty in welcoming the students. In speaking about the history of the university and the surrounding community, Agouris referenced the Bray School, the oldest enduring building dedicated to the education of free and enslaved Black children in the United States.

The building was discovered on W&M’s campus in 2021, and the university worked with Colonial Williamsburg and the City of Williamsburg to move the Bray School’s Bray-Digges House in 2023 in order to preserve the structure and the history it contains.

“Impactful research is an important part of our institution’s identity. I encourage you to embrace your spirit of inquiry as you learn and as you tackle new avenues of thought,” Agouris said. “At William & Mary, when you look around you, you will see a community filled with curiosity, prepared to apply intellectual rigor to the thorniest of academic challenges, and you will find that exciting revelations await you.”

Agouris urged students to embrace the creative, the entertaining and the fun of their lives at William & Mary. She highlighted the “tremendous resources and caring professionals” at W&M.

“The faculty and staff here want to be partners with you in your journey and support you in every way, from tutoring to healthcare,” Agouris said, “because health and wellness positively affect our living, our research and our scholarship. They help us enjoy the vibrant academic life offered at one of the best schools in the world.”

President of the Class of 2024 Mia Tilman presented the Class of 2027 banner, which will hang from the Wren for one week before moving to its long-term home in the rafters of the Sadler Center until Commencement 2027.

“We hope it will be a symbol of unity and belonging for your class throughout your years here together, and in the years that follow, as you, like all the classes before you, become alumni of William & Mary,” Tilman said right before the banner was unfurled from the Wren’s upper balcony.

Carolyn “Biddy” Martin
Carolyn “Biddy” Martin ’73, L.H.D. ’12, a higher education leader, scholar and pioneer, was the keynote speaker at William & Mary’s Opening Convocation ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Parting advice

Martin closed her speech by encouraging students to embrace the opportunities at William & Mary, including learning from others with differing views.  

“My favorite piece of advice is to learn again how to converse with people and to let conversation become an art again,” she said.

Martin’s career spans nearly four decades and includes top leadership positions at Cornell University, University of Wisconsin-Madison and Amherst College. In 2011, Martin was named the first woman president of Amherst and served in that position for more than a decade. In 2012, W&M presented Martin with an honorary degree during its Commencement ceremony.

“I owe every opportunity that I’ve had – and I’ve had such incredible opportunities in my life – to the fact that I ended up at William & Mary,” Martin said.  

Martin was the first woman provost of Cornell, and she became the longest-serving provost there. She also served as chancellor at UW-Madison and in 2011 joined Amherst as its 19th president.

“Understanding doesn’t mean embracing or condoning, but it does mean being humane in all directions,” Martin said. “With one another, I hope you will practice kindness and show compassion even as you have … a good time and learn as much as the William & Mary faculty can possibly offer you.”

Class of 2027 banner displayed on balcony at the Wren Building
Lit in green and gold, the Class of 2027 banner hangs from the Wren Building’s upper balcony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

, Communications Specialist