The class of 2003 experienced a shortened Commencement ceremony Sunday, as graduates celebrated on the Ellipse despite damp, 50-degree weather. Rain stopped falling about 20 minutes before graduation, but University officials said they used an abbreviated version of the ceremony because parents and students were cold.
About 20,000 faculty members, graduates and guests attended the hour-long ceremony. Some attendees wore clear, plastic GW ponchos while sitting in the folding chairs that lined the Ellipse. About 2,000 chairs were empty, organizers said. Green, soggy floor covers protected some guests’ shoes from mud.
Although the University secured the MCI Center as an alternative indoor site, officials said students prefer having graduation outside, and would only change locations because of “life-threatening” circumstances.
“I can’t believe (the weather). I thought God would never let it rain on a GW Commencement,” University Marshal Jill Kasle said after the graduation exercises. “(Since the rain) stopped 20 minutes before, I guess we can say it never did.”
Kasle said the ceremony would have lasted about 20 minutes longer if the weather would have been better. A speech by Board of Trustees Chair Charles Manatt and a tribute to emeritus professors by Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs Donald Lehman were both cut. University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg also said he spoke for a shorter amount of time because people “were cold and wanted to get out of there.” Officials said they were in touch Saturday and Sunday with the Park Service, meteorologists at Channel 4 and student leaders to determine where to hold the ceremony.
Vice President for Public Safety and Emergency Management John Petrie said the location would have only been switched to the MCI Center if the conditions were “hazardous.”
Trachtenberg delivered the welcome address, after a processional featuring the Washington Scottish Pipe bands and an invocation, among a few other short activities.
Trachtenberg told a story about a conversation he overheard before the ceremony started. He said a graduate was complaining to her father about the poor weather conditions, to which her father replied “They’ve been soaking us for four years – what’s a little rain now?”
Trachtenberg’s comments were received with laughter from the crowd.
Governor of Virginia Mark Warner gave the keynote address, in which he reminisced about his undergraduate days at GW and gave graduates three pieces of advice – “Don’t be afraid to fail,” “It matters how you treat people” and “Call your mother.”
Four members of the GW community also received honorary degrees – Former Missouri Sen. Jean Carnahan, Former United States Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service Sheldon S. Cohen, scientist and journalist Madeleine Jacobs and jazz musician Billy Taylor. Each recipient spoke for a few minutes, after being introduced by a student receiving a similar degree.
Carnahan – who graduated from GW in 1955-started off her address by saying she no longer has her first degree because her house burned two years ago, and thanked Trachtenberg for the “upgrade.”
Carnahan talked about the importance of public service.
“(GW) has given you more than a diploma,” Carnahan said to the graduates. “It has given you an education, and with it the duty to improve our communities and to improve lives. Don’t just do well; do good.”
Graduating senior Rachel Talbot, a student in the School of Business and Public Management, used the invention of paper to discuss the importance of spreading knowledge.
“Once obtained, knowledge, unlike land or property, can never be taken nor destroyed,” she said. “Once knowledge has spread through the veins of society, no disease can fight it, and no army can conquer it.”
After the Class of 2003 turned its tassels from the right to left, graduates looked for their parents and friends among a sea of thousands. Attendees walked through the muddy grounds talking, laughing and crying.
Several graduates said they were happy the University decided to hold Commencement outside, despite the weather.
“There’s really something to be said to have your graduation speech nestled between the White House and the monuments,” Aaron Cohen said. “It’s the perfect way to go out and to begin, because it’s called Commencement.”
But some graduates said they either did not attend Commencement because of the weather, or wished the ceremony were at the MCI Center.
“I think everyone would rather have it inside instead of pretending like they all wanted it outside,” graduate Candice Gessin said.
Administrators and faculty members said they were pleased overall with the ceremony, despite weather conditions.
“It’s a real … payoff to be here in the trenches,” said professor Michael Feldman, who received the Oscar and Shoshana Trachtenberg Prize in Teaching Sunday. “I love (my students).”
-Andrea Nurko and Mosheh Oinounou contributed to this report.