Graduates and their families assembled on the National Mall on a slightly rainy Sunday for Stephen Joel Trachtenberg’s last Commencement as University President.
Seating on the Mall spanned three blocks in between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. Twenty-five thousand metal chairs and four sets of large screens and speakers were set-up so attendees seated blocks away from the stage could still see and hear the ceremony.
“You can’t make this kind of stuff up, this kind of scenery,” said Wolf Blitzer, an honorary degree recipient.
As Blitzer ended his address and praised the troops in Iraq, the sky darkened and there was a short rain shower. A flurry of activity followed as people opened umbrellas and grabbed the free plastic ponchos handed out by Commencement staff.
“It’s very colorful to see the umbrellas go up, but it’s not comfortable to be out there in the rain,” said University Marshall Jill Kasle in an interview with The Hatchet after the event. Kasle added that despite the rain, the diversity of the speakers made this Commencement exceptional.
“I really think this one was the best,” said Kasle, who has presided over 18 Commencements at GW.
During his charge to the graduates, Trachtenberg recalled an anecdote from a previous rainy Commencement.
“I heard a wife say to her husband ‘We’re getting soaked’ and the husband said ‘They’ve been soaking us for four years, what’s a little more now?” Trachtenberg joked, referring to tuition costs.
In an interview after the event, Trachtenberg noted the many transitions occuring at this Commencement – both in his own life and the graduates’. He said he will remember “the sense of optimism students felt and I felt as we go off to try new things.”
Tracy Schario, director of Media Relations said about 22,000 guests and graduates attended the ceremony on the Mall, a lower turnout than the 26,000 people who showed up at the Mall last year when George H.W. and Barbara Bush gave the ceremony’s keynote address.
Around 4,500 of the 6,000 people who graduated this year from undergraduate and graduate programs attended Sunday’s Commencement ceremony, Schario said.
Commencement is typically an informal event where people wander around to pick up free bottled water, grab ice cream or other snacks from nearby stands and take pictures by the stage. Family members said the two-hour ceremony was not unbearably long.
John Rumely traveled to the District from New York to see his daughter, Madeleine, an international affairs and economics major, get her diploma.
“(Commencement) was big and impressive and not as long as I had feared,” he said. “I was pleased to hear Dr. Trachtenberg. He’s had 19 years of achievement here, and this was a great send-off.”
He said students got what they wanted at Commencement – words of wisdom from speakers. Trachtenberg stepped down as the keynote speaker for Commencement after the Virginia Tech shootings, and instead delivered a charge to graduates as he had done in past ceremonies.
Alessandro Maffioli attended Commencement to celebrate the graduation of his wife Valeria Losco, who received a master of laws degree. Maffioli, a native of Italy who now resides in D.C., said he was impressed by the scope of the event.
“It’s huge and it’s very different from Italy,” he said of the Commencement ceremony. “There are no big events like this (in Italy) … It’s beautiful, I didn’t expect so many people.”
Georgia Skeadas, from Villanova, Pa., attended GW’s Commencement for the second year in a row. She came with her son, Peter, who graduated from GW in 2006, for the graduation of her daughter Mariana, a sports event, and hospitality management major.
“I just love it. To have a graduation facing the Capitol with the Washington Monument in the background is just awesome,” Skeadas said. “I’m so very proud of her.”
-Nathan Grossman contributed to this report.