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Washington and Lee University Awards Degrees to 415 Seniors

Washington and Lee University President Kenneth P. Ruscio encouraged members of the graduating Class of 2009 to live in the “complicated center” of life during the University’s 222nd commencement exercises on Thursday, June 4.

A rain shower punctuated the ceremonies during Ruscio’s remarks and the conferring of honorary degrees. The graduates unfolded the ponchos that had been provided for that eventuality while family and friends huddled beneath umbrellas to stay dry until the shower passed just as the graduates were to begin receiving their diplomas.

By tradition, the W&L president is the principal speaker for commencement. In his remarks to the 415 graduates, Ruscio said that he worries about the state of public discourse in these days when it has seemingly become impossible to disagree respectfully.

• Read President Ruscio’s remarks.

“We mistake the harshness of one’s rhetoric for the depth of one’s convictions,” he said. “Decibel levels do not correlate with the quality of one’s reasoning. Certitude is not the same as clarity; stridency is not the same as sincerity.”

Asserting that it is “intellectually lazy” to seek the less complicated path, Ruscio said that a symptom of such laziness is the tendency to “caricature the positions of those who think differently. . . and then to personalize the disagreement by labeling those with whom you disagree as unreasonable, not rational and even morally deficient.”

Instead of choosing a path where “you won’t have to think as much or work as hard,” Ruscio challenged the graduates to live a more difficult life, “somewhere in the complicated center, where the courage of your convictions blends with humility and respect for others. It will make for a challenging life, but a fulfilling and meaningful one for yourselves and for those whose lives you will surely touch.”

During the ceremony, the university also awarded three honorary degrees to author Charles Johnson, a winner of the National Book Award and a professor of English at the University of Washington; journalist Alex Jones, a 1968 graduate of W&L, the winner of a Pulitzer Prize and the director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government; and Susan Tifft, a Duke University professor who specializes in journalism ethics and who, with Jones, has co-authored two acclaimed books on newspaper families.

The class valedictorian was Elizabeth Webb, a biochemistry major from Middleburg, Va., who earned a 4.075 grade point average on a 4.0 scale and will study in Australia on a Fulbright Research Grant next year.

Webb also won the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award, which the university gives each year to two graduates, a man and a woman, on a vote of the faculty. It recognizes the recipients’ ideals, spiritual qualities and service to others.

Christopher Martin, of Shreveport, La, a politics major and a leader in the university’s Shepherd Poverty Program, received the other Sullivan Award.

The 415 graduates had an average grade point average of 3.335, the highest on record at the university. The graduates completed 36 different majors; 28 percent of the graduating class had more than one major, while two students finished with three majors. The Class of 2009 came from 39 states, the District of Columbia and 11 countries.

Other honors included:

• Taylor Profitt Lawch, a business administration major from Bethesda, Md., was selected by the Executive Committee of the student body to receive the Frank J. Gilliam Award, as the student who has made the most valuable contribution to student affairs in more than one field.
• Two graduates received the Edward Lee Pinney Prize, awarded by the Student Affairs Committee for extraordinary commitment to personal scholarship and to the nurturing of intellectual life at Washington and Lee. They are Emily Taylor Mathews, a philosophy and business administration major from Baltimore, Md., and Wesley Ben O’Dell, a politics, history and classics major from Millwood, W.Va.
• Two graduates were selected by W&L’s Celebrating Student Success Initiative as the John W. Elrod Unsung Generals of the Year. Hunter Coleman Branstetter, an English major from Nashville, Tenn., was honored for his contributions to the Honor Advocate Program. Jenna Elise Walls, a biology major from Zionsville, Ind., was honored for her contributions to Nabors Service League and the men’s basketball program.
• In addition to Webb, three graduates won Fulbright Fellowships to study and work abroad for a year, beginning this summer. Katherine Leah Bagley, a German and politics major from Midlothain, Va., will teach in Germany. Katherine Michelle Bastian, a politics and German major from North Wales, Pa., will conduct research in Germany. Paul Sinton Stack, an English and French major from Baltimore, Md., will teach English in the Lorraine region of France.
• Kelly Jeanne Bundy, a French and politics major from Moseley, Va., has been awarded a Teaching Assistantship in English through the French government.
• Two graduates were awarded Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarships for study abroad next year. Joseph Hansen Babington, an English and Spanish major from Mobile, Ala., will travel to Madrid, Spain. Michael Thompson, a geology major with a concentration in environmental studies from La Jolla, Calif., will travel to Santiago, Chile.
• Eduardo Ignacio Rodriguez, a business administration major with a concentration in poverty and human capability studies, has been awarded a grant from the Kathryn Wasserman Davis 100 Projects for Peace program to establish a language laboratory in his home town of Pehuajo, Argentina.
• Three graduates received National Collegiate Athletic Association Postgraduate Scholarships. They are Paul Davidson Crook, a chemistry major from Nashville, Tenn., Anne Van Devender, a computer science major with a concentration in women’s and gender studies from Jackson, Miss., and Elizabeth Webb.