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Commencement Speakers Urge Graduates to Practice Optimism and Determination

Old Dominion University graduates heard messages of optimism and determination from speakers Gen. Stephane Abrial and Patricia Williams during ODU's 115th Commencement Exercises on Saturday, Dec. 17.

Doctoral, master's and undergraduate degrees were conferred on 1,100 graduates of Old Dominion University's six colleges during two ceremonies at the Ted Constant Convocation Center.

Abrial, a general in the French Air Force, has been the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (ACT) since September 2009. In his address to graduates of the College of Sciences, Darden College of Education and Batten College of Engineering and Technology, Abrial spoke with affection about the relationship NATO ACT has formed with Old Dominion University.

During Abrial's tenure in Norfolk, Old Dominion University and ACT have strengthened their formal relationship, which has included co-hosting academic symposia. The university is considered ACT's primary academic partner.

"I am very happy to be speaking to you today, especially in light of all the work ACT has been doing with this great institution," Abrial said. "With the creation of a web portal through our Civil-Military Fusion Center, people right here at Old Dominion University are responding to crises in hotspots around the world, such as after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010."

Abrial, who received a Doctor of Science honorary degree, joked that he didn't have to "produce a 200-page thesis to get mine."

He praised the work of graduating students, and urged them to keep the negative news they read about the world in proper perspective.

"Wonderful things truly are happening in the world," Abrial said, mentioning that infant mortality has dropped in most developing countries on earth, and many of the world's fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Abrial issued a challenge to students to contribute to bettering their world, by following their dreams, but with a caveat.

"Follow your dreams, but just as importantly, follow your values," he said. "Do not underestimate how powerful an example you can set in your organization every day. The world is waiting with open arms for enthusiastic, open-minded, understanding men and women."

Williams, the James L. Dohr Professor of Law at Columbia University School of Law and author of the monthly "Diary of a Mad Law Professor" column for The Nation magazine, spoke at the afternoon ceremony to graduates of the College of Arts and Letters, College of Business and Public Administration and College of Health Sciences.

Daunted when asked to give a Commencement address during a "complicated moment in history," Williams said she asked her mother, a retired educator well into her 90s, for advice before giving the address. Williams said her mother's perspective of having survived the Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights movement and other momentous events instructed her to not look at any single moment in our nation's history as defining and all-encompassing. "So, from my mother to you, keep a sense of perspective, and cultivate a sense of poetic imagination," Williams said.

From her own experience, Williams urged graduates worried about achieving the American Dream to keep in mind that succeeding in life isn't about having things, it's about forging a good life.

"Even given our current situation as a nation, you are fortunate, you are blessed to live in the United States," Williams said. "Life has never been gift-wrapped or guaranteed. It requires tenacity, patience, resilience and optimism."

Also during the ceremony, an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degrees were presented to Baron and Ellin Gordon, patrons of the arts and donors of the largest gift of art ever given to ODU, a collection of 375 folk art works by self-taught artists, currently on display at the Baron and Ellin Gordon Self-Taught Art Gallery at ODU.

This article was posted on: December 21, 2011

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