William & Mary’s Class of 2024 will forever be known for “finding a way.”

A way through the COVID-19 pandemic and all of its uncertainties.

A way through deep divisions and conflict within the country and around the world.

A way through individual challenges and struggles, of which others may never be aware.

Despite it all, they persevered to receive the most personal education of any public university in the country. On Friday night, their resilience was rewarded as they celebrated the completion of their degrees during the university’s Commencement ceremony.

“Four years ago, we were grieving lost traditions, high school graduations that were missed. We were striving to imagine this moment,” said William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe. “The successes that brought all of you here to this stadium tonight have been very hard-won. Through grit and resilience, especially through support of each other, you found a way — so many ways — to be here.”

Approximately 2,800 graduates participated in the Commencement festivities, witnessed by around 12,000 family members and friends. The graduates included the 10th class from the St Andrews Joint Degree Programme.

Judge John Charles Thomas, the first African American and youngest appointee to the Supreme Court of Virginia, served as the ceremony’s keynote speaker. His address was something of a full-circle moment for the Class of 2024; he served as the Opening Convocation speaker in 2021, encouraging students to “be magnificent builders” – a theme he echoed at Commencement.

“I depend on this class, not just the undergraduates but the graduates who studied here too, that when you leave this place and go out into the world, that you will understand that with the skills of freedom, you are meant to be builders of the best that America can be,” he said.

Chancellor Robert M. Gates ‘65, L.H.D. ’98 also challenged the graduates to make an impact with their education, embracing the university’s core value of service.

“The legacy of service — of making a difference for our country and for our fellow citizens — is the oldest and greatest tradition of this ancient institution, this Alma Mater of the Nation,” said Gates. “That shared legacy is what makes this home so special for all of us, so worth cherishing for a lifetime. 

“As you graduate today, know that you, too, are both challenged and destined to make a difference.”

William & Mary’s 2024 Commencement ceremony

‘Hark upon the gale’

Thomas, who has found success as a poet in addition to his career in law, asked the graduates to consider the line “hark upon the gale” in the university’s “Our Alma Mater” song.

“Many people think it’s just a pretty line to build out a rhyme scheme and is so lovely to hear,” he said. “But I want to tell you that every time you heard ‘hark upon the gale,’ the ancients were telling you something that you better learn and pay attention to.”

A gale, he continued, is a storm at sea with winds that are greater than 60 miles per hour. If a person found themselves in one, they would likely be terrified and looking for shelter.

“But what does the writer of the Alma Mater say? ‘Hark upon the gale.’ Hark means pay attention. Hark means heed what’s going on,” said Thomas.

Thomas’ 2024 Commencement remarks

Competitive sailors know that if they pay attention to the winds and all of the other forces that affect their vessels, they can use them to their advantage. 

“And what I’m saying to you here at William & Mary, is that if you ‘hark upon the gale,’ if you pay attention while everybody is running, when everybody is screaming and yelling, when everybody is at each other’s throats, if you pay attention, if you ‘hark upon the gale,’ you might be the one to see the course that will set the nation straight.”

The university is a place of transformation and unending possibilities, Thomas added. 

“William & Mary is a place where you can come and change yourself and change your worldview and get ready and go out and change the world itself,” he said.

Putting his own spin on the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling, Thomas told the graduates that if they can embody all that they’ve learned and experienced at William & Mary, “then yours is the world and everything that is within it, and the promise of William & Mary will not be undone. Hark upon the gale!”

Honoring excellence

Thomas, a previous member of the Board of Visitors and honorary alumnus, received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the university during the event. The beloved member of the university community received a standing ovation when the honor was bestowed and another when he concluded his speech. 

He was one of a number to be honored throughout the weekend for their achievements and support of the university. 

Robert K. Gourdie ’24 received the Lord Botetourt Medal, honoring the graduating senior with the greatest distinction in scholarship, and Kelsey McAlister ’24 was honored with the James Frederic Carr Memorial Cup for combining the qualities of character, scholarship and leadership.

Holly L. Gruntner Ph.D. ’24 received the Thatcher Prize, presented annually to recognize an outstanding student in graduate or professional studies. 

This year’s Algernon Sydney Sullivan Awards went to Daniel A. Bess ’24, Catherine G. Cable ’24 and Sue Hanna Gerdelman ’76. They are presented in recognition of influence for good, taking into consideration such characteristics of heart, mind, conduct and demonstrating a spirit of love and helpfulness to others.

Several faculty members were also honored. Nancy Combs, Ernest W. Goodrich Professor at William & Mary Law School, and Deborah Steinberg, CSX Professor of Marine Science at the William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science were the recipients of this year’s Thomas Ashley Graves Jr. Award. The award honors excellence in teaching and commitment to student education. 

Additionally, this year’s recipients of the Duke Award were recognized, along with the recipients of this semester’s Values in Action Awards and the university’s new honorary alumni, among others.

‘The people who find a way’

Correnthia Randolph M.Ed. ’24, who was selected as this year’s student speaker, talked about the trials that she and her fellow graduates faced throughout the last few years and the support they received.

“We have persevered even when nature herself seemed to turn her back against us and the world stood still. We held on to one another no matter what was thrown our way by keeping our eyes still on the prize,” she said. 

“It is with the same zeal that I charge each of you this day to rise as one Tribe, united in the presence of everything that is sacred, righteous and true. For our joint efforts will be felt and witnessed by many for centuries to come.” 

Rowe mentioned that Thomas’ call to the Class to the Class of 2024 to be magnificent builders ended up being the hallmark of their time at William & Mary. 

Amidst the struggles of the COVID-19 pandemic, the students prioritized convening in-person and found ways to forge connections, even while physically distanced. 

“When William & Mary invited you to come study here together, you took a risk to do so, and all of us have learned from that,” she said.

Rowe said that invitation featured four powerful words: “Come study here together.” 

“Each of these simple words is an action that brought us to this moment and that allowed us to find a way,” she said. “That is the most powerful ability a human being can have, and all of you in the Class of 2024 have that ability. You don’t yet know everything you can do with it, but it’s going to be extraordinary.

“You are the people who found a way, and you will always be wherever you go, the people who find a way.”

Related story: VIMS 2024 graduates ready to make waves

, Senior Associate Director of University News