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Over the course of my more than 30 years in academia, the highlight of May for me has always been university commencement exercises. Seeing graduates cross the stage on Hearn Plaza and in Wait Chapel and receiving their degrees or their graduate hoods reminds me without fail of why I chose my career path: to create transformational educational opportunities for all students. 

As we celebrated undergraduate and graduate student’s achievements over Commencement Weekend at Wake Forest, I also reflected on a spring semester unlike any other: that of 2020, four years ago. It was then that for the first – and only – time in my career, I did not celebrate commencement exercises in person but online, a painful reality echoed across K-12 education as well. 

Many of our Wake Forest students who crossed the stage this past week took part in a ritual that is profoundly sacred to education, and that because of the pandemic, they had never experienced before. Hearing your name called, crossing a stage before your classmates, faculty, staff, families and friends, and receiving a diploma is a chance to mark an important milestone in life. Every one of our students deserved that singular moment of celebration for their unique accomplishments, and it gave me such joy to be there with them. 

As such, the thrill of the commencement stage crossing felt even more poignant this year for our graduates, and I am so honored to have witnessed it up close. The hugs, handshakes, tears, and exuberant smiles reminded me all throughout the weekend that what we do here, the education we provide, matters so much to so many. 

In my address to the undergraduate class of 2024, I did not dwell on the perceptions of what this very special class “lost” due to the pandemic, but rather what they gained that is unique to them. I also focused on what I have learned from them through my many conversations with graduating students this year. 

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