In remarks to graduates at Old Dominion University's first in-person commencement ceremonies in a year and a half, President John R. Broderick said the venue where they are being held - Kornblau Field at S.B. Ballard Stadium - helped illustrate how disruptive COVID-19 has been.
"Who would have thought two years ago when we rebuilt this football stadium that we would hold more graduation ceremonies this weekend - seven - than we would hold home football games - six - over two years?" he said.
He then cited a famous lyric from the Grateful Dead to sum up the past year: "What a long, strange trip it's been."
The pandemic, President Broderick told graduates, "changed your college experience 180 degrees."
But "as a class, you have much to be proud of. You have succeeded academically, and you have been thoroughly engaged in the University and the Hampton Roads community through a variety of volunteer efforts. And, of course, you have persisted despite the overwhelming challenges of the pandemic."
He said their resilience during the pandemic should give them the wherewithal to face future challenges.
"As you reflect on your time at ODU, remember what was required of you to reach this point," he said. "That same formula will be required to attain your next goal, whether it's more education, a job or probably for many of you, both."
President Broderick also reminded the graduates that their success relied on the support of others.
"I think all of you being honored today would agree there is at least one person, probably here in these stands, who played a significant role in helping you reach this academic milestone," he said.
"So before you text all your impressions from today, carve out some time to personally thank that person or individuals for believing in you. Chances are pretty good, those same folks will continue to support you in your future journeys as well."
During the final graduation on Saturday, President Broderick noted that he had participated in some 65 ODU ceremonies as president and dozens more as vice president. "Over the years, I have had the thrill of signing some 70,000 diplomas," he said.
The ceremony ended with a special recognition and plaque for President Broderick and First Lady Kate Broderick. The First Lady was honored for her "unparalleled love and advocacy for education and student accessibility," and President Broderick was lauded for his "commitment to diversity, inclusion and equity."
The in-person events were part of a four-day celebration for graduates of the classes of 2020 - whose in-person events were postponed due to the pandemic - and 2021. A virtual commencement was held Wednesday night. A total of 1,274 graduates of 2020 attended two in-person ceremonies on Thursday, and 2,661 graduates of 2021 received degrees in five ceremonies Friday and Saturday.
"We have been looking forward to this day where we could gather together, in-person, to celebrate your accomplishments," said Austin Agho, provost and vice president for academic affairs.
Don Stansberry, vice president of student engagement and enrollment services, recognized the military-affiliated graduates. Nearly one-quarter of ODU's approximately 25,000 students are military affiliated, including almost 2,300 veterans.
He also congratulated the classes of 2020 and 2021 as a whole.
"I have had the privilege to watch you embrace our core values with commitment to service, continuous learning and building community connections," he said. "I am truly proud of each of you."
During Wednesday's virtual commencement, U.S. Sen. Mark R. Warner praised graduates' resiliency throughout the pandemic.
"I know these are crazy times to be graduating, and you likely made a number of social and academic sacrifices to keep yourself and your community safe during this crisis," Warner said. "So today, I commend you for those sacrifices and overcoming the obstacles presented by the pandemic in order to complete your studies."
Warner expressed his belief that the graduates are up to any challenges that lie ahead.
"Many of you are heading out into unknown territory," he said. "I know I don't have to tell you that the job market looks drastically different today than what it did even before the pandemic started. Even age-old practices like networking, interviewing or starting a new job look differently than they did before. That said, if anyone can handle these challenges, it's your generation. As these past several years have demonstrated, young Americans are smart, capable and innovative. You're willing to take on our nation's biggest challenges and aren't afraid to chart your own path in doing so."
He also urged them to not be afraid to fail. He noted that his first two attempts to start businesses went bankrupt within six weeks and six months, respectively.
"After those two bankruptcies, I was sleeping on my friends' couches, living out of my car," Warner said.
Then, in 1982, a friend told him about a new technology called cell phones. He eventually became a co-founder of Nextel and "was blessed beyond my wildest dreams," he said.
Warner congratulated President Broderick "on a well-deserved retirement."
"Under his leadership, ODU has made important advancements in research and innovation," Warner said, adding that President Broderick should take great pride in his service "to the University, to all of Hampton Roads and to the commonwealth."
President Broderick made note of the first-generation college graduates.
"Many of you, like me, are the first in your families to go to college, demonstrating first-hand that dedication and perseverance do pay off," he said, adding that Warner is also a first-generation college graduate.
Stansberry said he drew inspiration from the students' generosity, compassion and resilience.
"You've come a long way, but it's nothing compared to how far you'll go," he said.
Agho recognized "this extraordinary milestone in your education."
"You are a special group of students," he added. "You did not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to stop you from achieving your educational goal.
"Though you may think you reached the end of the journey, today marks the beginning of the next phase of your lives as a graduate of Old Dominion University."
Kay A. Kemper, rector of the Board of Visitors, congratulated the graduates for their perseverance and adaptability in making the switch to online learning "in the midst of concern for your health and the health of the people you love."
She also highlighted the leadership of President Broderick, including the more than 50 new facilities and projects have come to fruition on his watch.
"When you return for homecoming in the years to come," she said, "I'm sure you'll see many other innovations, programs and initiatives because ODU is always evolving to meet the future and we are so proud of the unique role you will play in putting your ODU degree to work in the larger world."
You can watch the ceremonies live and access archived videos of 2021 graduations at this link.