VCU Commencement

May 12, 2012
Richmond Coliseum

Good morning! Thank you, Provost Warren, for that introduction and for the integral role you play as my great partner in advancing Virginia Commonwealth University as one of the nation’s great research universities.

There is nothing more special in the life of a university than a commencement ceremony. The success of our students is my greatest joy, and I am so pleased and honored to be here.

I am humbled by the talent, determination and infinite promise of our graduates. I also have a special appreciation for the professors, advisers and mentors, the family and friends, and the many others who have helped shape them and guide them right to the finish line. We all recognize and thank you for the vital role you have played in shaping the lives of these wonderful people before me.

One person who has done so much for all of us is Lillian Lambert, a member of our Board of Visitors. Today is Lillian’s birthday. I ask you to join me in thanking Lillian for her contributions to VCU, and in wishing her a happy birthday.

Thank you.

There is a reason we have all come together to celebrate your commencement, and that is because it’s such a remarkable achievement. Only 6 percent of people in the world have graduated from college. Six percent! Do not take your education lightly, and never, ever take it for granted. Use it every day. You have an extraordinary gift — and with it, an extraordinary obligation to use your education as a force of good in our world.

Across the globe, graduates of VCU are recognized as people who make a difference, women and men for whom the status quo is never good enough. They are innovators, leaders in their disciplines, visionaries who are laser-focused on excellence in everything they do. Our graduates do not just take jobs — they create them, and they create opportunities for others.

That recognition is now passed on to you. In your time at VCU, we have offered you knowledge and exposed you to the methodologies you need to succeed. But what we have really done is equip you to pursue your passion. I know you will pursue it boldly and with purpose.

Many of you already are. Victoria Hribar, who is receiving her bachelor’s degree in biomedical engineering today, is using her VCU education to help 11 million blind Americans share in the joy of art. Working alongside professor Dianne Pawluk, Victoria is using haptic technology to allow visually impaired patrons to experience the texture, color, contrast and emotions inherent in art. She has been supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute and has presented her research to members of Congress through the Posters on Capitol Hill program.

Victoria wants to give visually impaired people, “a more personal experience with art. Most forms of art are inaccessible for this population, but we wanted them to have the same sense of learning and enjoyment most people get from art.”

She is making a difference for so many, and is only beginning her important work. Please join me in recognizing one of your fellow graduates, Victoria Hribar.

Yeimarie Lopez is receiving her bachelor’s degree in Social Work. Throughout her time at VCU, she has worked with professor Mary Shelden to improve Latinos’ experience in navigating the health care system. Her mission began with a personal experience: Five years ago, her grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and struggled to get the quality care she needed because of language and cultural barriers. Yeimarie found that this was common: Many Spanish-speaking patients cannot get access to cancer-related education and treatment in America.

Yeimarie is setting out to change that. She said, “Latinos’ access to health care and comprehensive services are some of the areas I hope to address in my advocacy work.” Then she adds, “I’m on a God-given mission to change the world.”

She is already changing the world for her grandmother and the nearly 50 million other Latinos who live in the U.S., an estimated 10 percent of whom speak English less than fluently. Please join me in recognizing Yeimarie Lopez.

Scott Abedi will receive his doctor of medicine degree today, and he has spent plenty of time in hospitals. When he was only 3 years old, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin Lymphona — a type of cancer of the blood — an experience that led him to study medicine. His path, however, was winding.

Before he became Dr. Abedi, he was Scott, a software engineer who developed six patents for a major technology company. Then he realized — and I quote — “I could either spend the rest of my life ? helping a large company’s bottom line, or I could be a part of something that would provide more meaning to my life and give me the opportunity to directly help others.”

As a medical student at VCU, he combined his passion for technology and medicine and is on his way to a career in radiology. Scott’s drive to make a difference — and not be satisfied by success outside his calling — will change the world for his patients.

Please join me in recognizing Dr. Scott Abedi.

Emily Ferlis is graduating with her Ph.D. in Education today. However, she is already an accomplished mentor. She has taught English classes in Japan and Bulgaria and to Spanish-speaking students in New York; she has presented at education conferences in Estonia and Serbia; and she has spent time in Asia and Central America. Her biggest impact, though, has been at home, where she helps teachers and families of at-risk students in Richmond schools and leads literacy workshops in local libraries. She is also a program specialist in VCU’s own Literacy Institute.

As a student, Emily has researched the unique needs of children with learning disabilities who are trying to learn English. Taking the next step, she has advocated for state policies that support adult learners of English for workforce development.

“Emily doesn’t ever clock out of a job,” one of her friends has said. But that does not mean she is all business.

Emily co-founded the Southside Skateboarding Project, which combines children’s love for skateboarding with their need to learn writing, art and math concepts. She has made learning fun — as long as you wear a helmet!

Please join me in recognizing your classmate, Emily Ferlis.

There are so many examples of excellence among you, stories of how you are using your education in profound ways. In the past year, VCU students performed more than 170,000 hours of community service in Richmond and around the world. You have planted gardens, restored the James River, run free health and dental clinics, created stunning public art, taught schoolchildren how to read and how to innovate, brought water to remote villages, revived historic sites, supported small businesses and much more.

You have been inspirational and generous as students. I know you will continue to be as leaders in your communities. You have studied in different disciplines — and have earned different degrees — but you have the shared knowledge that a VCU education means more than just taking 40 courses. It is about reaching out, about rising up, about finding courage within. It is a commitment that never ends because what you are receiving is more than a diploma; it is a license to be a leader.

As you prepare to graduate, remember why you first enrolled here. It was not to launch a career, although you are well-prepared to do that. It was to discover, to think, to lead and to serve. You are well-prepared for that, too. I know I can count on you to keep pushing yourselves to the limits, because you are the only ones who get to define those limits. Use your education to improve your life and — more importantly — use it to help improve the lives of those around you. Remember what matters most is not where you go in this world, but what you contribute to it.

You are part of VCU now and forever. We are proud of you. And we wish you the very, very best. On behalf of the entire VCU community, congratulations.