W&L Graduates 453 Students at 236th Commencement In his remarks, President Will Dudley told the Class of 2023 the ability to think freely, critically, and humanely has prepared them to be conscientious interpreters of the world.
At Washington and Lee University’s 236th Commencement ceremony on Thursday, members of the Class of 2023 were reminded by President William C. Dudley that engaged citizenship begins with intellect and character, and that responsible leadership is about setting an example and exerting a positive influence.
“Engaged citizenship — your citizenship — begins with the traits of intellect and character that are cultivated by a good liberal arts education,” Dudley said. “Your education has prepared you to assess what can be improved, and to have the courage to speak up about it.”
“Figure out how to make things better,” he continued. “If something needs to be done, roll up your sleeves and get to work. Persuade others to join you. Responsible leadership — your leadership — is less about commanding those who answer to you, or criticizing those who don’t, than it is about exerting a positive influence, showing others by your own example what matters, and why, and what you can accomplish together.”
Having the university president give the Commencement address is a custom at W&L that dates to the 1930s.
During his speech, Dudley reflected on the challenging times during which the Class of 2023 attended college. He reminded the students that when they arrived in August 2019, they did all the things that generations of W&L students had done before, such as bid emotional farewells to their families, eagerly greet their new roommates, and pledge to uphold W&L’s Honor System.
“We had a great Fall Term,” he said. “And then things got complicated. In March 2020, Covid descended upon us, and you had to pack your bags and head home abruptly. The pandemic changed every aspect of our lives in previously unimaginable ways.”
Dudley also recounted the murder of George Floyd in May of the same year, and the subsequent protests and calls for racial reckoning across the country, as well as the storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a year later.
“That’s a lot of bad news” he said. “And it’s tough to look away. The issues are important, and the coverage of them is not only ubiquitous but also weirdly compelling. So much so that the term ‘doom scrolling,’ which refers to the practice of compulsively consuming negative information, was named the word of the year in 2020.”
“Social media enables information, misinformation, fear, and outrage to spread more quickly and widely than ever before,” Dudley added, then reminded the class of the university’s mission statement, and W&L’s purpose to help its students become capable people who lead lives of consequence.
“You can’t be the kind of people that we are devoted to helping you become, or do the kinds of things that we are devoted to preparing you to do, without being well-informed about the world you inhabit, including its many serious problems,” he said. “But there’s a difference between being well-informed, which you should be, and being sucked into a vortex of negativity, which you should avoid.”
“A good liberal arts education teaches you not to believe everything you read or hear,” he continued. “It teaches you to ask good questions, to make careful distinctions, to discern what is important, to sift the probable from the improbable. Those habits of mind enable you to distinguish trustworthy from untrustworthy sources. Armed with reliable information and the ability to think freely, critically, and humanely — which you have honed here at W&L — you are prepared to be conscientious interpreters of the world.”
Dudley’s advice to graduates as they prepare to leave campus is to keep their eyes and minds open.
“If you work hard, new doors will appear and open, often when you least expect,” he said. “If you choose to walk through them, you will be surprised where they will lead. Unpredictability is part of the fun. As your interests, projects, and commitments change over time, let what persists be your resolve to make a difference, and your confidence that the education you received here will see you through it all.”
James Torbert ’23, president of the Executive Committee of the Student Body from 2021-2023, spoke on behalf of his class.
Torbert, a Johnson Scholar from Auburn, Alabama, majored in philosophy with a minor in law, justice, and society. He competed on the Men’s Tennis team for two years, and worked on the 2020 Mock Convention, conducting political research for North Carolina. He served as a University Ambassador in the Office of Admissions, as a Development Ambassador, and as a member of Kathekon, W&L’s student-alumni relations organization. During his senior year, he served on the Senior Class Gift Committee, securing support for W&L’s Annual Fund.
Torbert was elected President of the Student Body as a junior after serving as a sophomore class representative to the Executive Committee (EC). He was re-elected to a second term as President of the Student Body for his senior year, making him the first student to serve back-to-back terms as EC president. This fall, Torbert will attend the University of Virginia School of Law.
In his speech on Thursday, Torbert commended his classmates for their many accomplishments.
“This class made significant accomplishments in all areas of academic and extracurricular life,” Torbert said. “Our class helped develop new student organizations that support not only W&L but also local communities. We maintained long-standing traditions of the Honor System, bringing high-quality speakers and artists to campus, and engaging in the Speaking Tradition. We conducted research that is being published and will continue to be pursued. We won ODAC championships in soccer, tennis, basketball, lacrosse, swimming, and more.”
“Not only were we immensely successful while we were here at W&L, but we also have exceptional futures ahead of us,” he continued. “Our class includes W&L’s 18th Rhodes Scholar, 12 Fulbright Scholars (and counting), and multiple Boren scholars, as well as students working at the most prestigious companies and institutions in the world. We should all be proud of the extensive success of our class.”
Torbert went on to recount the impact of the pandemic on the Class of 2023, reflecting on the special bonds created and the positive impact of the Honor System during that challenging time.
“For over a year while we were enrolled at W&L we were impacted by the pandemic,” Torbert said. “We had to fully adapt our academic and social lives in an entirely new way. It was definitely not a time that anyone wants to remember, but it is something we will not forget. Our college experience was in part very different from the experiences of students before us, but that’s what makes our class unique. Going through a really challenging and confusing time has created a shared bond within our class that many former college graduates do not have.”
“W&L taught us the meaning and value of personal integrity,” he continued. “Washington and Lee’s Honor System is built on principles of honesty and respect. While the Honor System afforded us the opportunity to take tests freely and leave items unguarded, the community of trust at W&L digs far deeper than that. This system, serving as the bedrock of communal relations, enables us to have more genuine and true connections with one another, as we know that each W&L student has graduated held to the same high standard of personal integrity.”
“Our class was particularly unique,” Torbert added. “As students at other institutions were required to use rigid computer lockdown technology when in-person testing wasn’t available, we were trusted to produce our assignments honorably and distanced from any monitoring. This system has also taught us that personal integrity should extend beyond our time at W&L. And, as we enter the professional world, we will know that we can trust the W&L alums we interact with.
Torbert ended by encouraging his classmates to join him in being grateful for the opportunities afforded to them.
“Whether it was by your parents, generous donors, or by whatever other means, we all were afforded the opportunity to spend four years at this institution,” he said. “That is something that only a very small portion of the country and the world are given the chance to do. We must be grateful for all of those that helped us get here. We can also be grateful for all the faculty and staff that made our time here what it was. The countless hours that professors spent helping us in their offices, the number of events made possible by hard-working staff, and the support offered to students by the university and students themselves. All of these are incredible privileges that we all can be grateful for … and I hope we take this gratitude with us.”
During Thursday’s ceremony, W&L conferred degrees upon 453 seniors. Altogether, the Class of 2023 earned degrees in 52 majors, with nearly 30% of the class completing more than one major. Fifty-three percent of the class completed at least one minor.
Four students were named valedictorians of the class: Walter Henry Barden, Anna Elizabeth Blackburn, Mary Elaine Graham, and Jason Gu. Each earned a final grade point average of 4.0.
Barden, a Johnson Scholar from Manakin Sabot, Virginia, graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in East Asian Languages and Literature and a creative writing minor. He served as a community English class coordinator with W&L ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages), was a leader in the Chanoyu Tea Society, is a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society, and wrote for the Ring-tum Phi student newspaper. Barden received the Robinson Award in Languages. Following graduation, he will move to Wilmington, North Carolina, to work as a business analyst at Live Oak Bank.
Blackburn, a Johnson Scholar from Jefferson, North Carolina, graduated summa cum laude with Honors in English. She worked as a peer consultant in the Writing Center, a research help associate in Leyburn Library, a Rockbridge Youth Literacy tutor, and is a member of Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society. She received the Catherine Houston Campbell Scholarship in English Literature; the Jean Amory Wornom Award for Distinguished Critical Writing; the Mapleson Award; the Robinson Award in English Literature, History, and Social Sciences; and the Sidney M. B. Coulling Award for Best Senior Work. Blackburn will attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the fall, where she will pursue a Ph.D. in English.
Graham, a Johnson Scholar from Clarksville, Maryland, earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and anthropology, pre-medical track. She played French horn and was the section leader in the University Wind Ensemble and Orchestra, served as a peer counselor, was the community service vice president in the Delta Society, and competed on the varsity swim team for two years. Off campus, Graham published multiple research articles on assisted reproductive technology, volunteered with music outreach in Baltimore, and served as a nursing assistant in free clinics. She is a member of Omicron Delta Kappa and Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society, as well as received the James McDowell Award; James Jinkins Livesay, M.D. Premedical Award; W&L University Orchestra Award; and O. Kendall White Jr. Prize for Excellence in Sociology and Anthropology. She will attend the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in July.
Gu, a Johnson Scholar from Randolph, New Jersey, graduated summa cum laude with a double major in accounting and economics. A member of Lambda Chi Alpha and Phi Beta Kappa Honors Society, Gu served as a head career fellow in the Career and Professional Development Office and as an associate director of the Williams Investment Society. He received the Accounting and Finance Department Award in recognition of his outstanding performance. Following graduation, he will begin work at Bank of America as an Equity Capital Markets Analyst in New York City.
A recording of the 2023 Undergraduate Commencement ceremony can be found at livestream.com/wlu.