Commencement exercises for the University of Lynchburg’s undergraduate Class of 2023 were held at 9 a.m. on Thursday, May 18, on Shellenberger Field. All told, 394 undergraduates — 203 Bachelor of Arts and 191 Bachelor of Science — received their diplomas.
During the ceremony, Student Government Association President Claire King ’23 addressed her class. Among other things, the international relations and security studies major spoke about the “one common experience that connected us all: the desire to make things better for the people and community we care about” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The University of Lynchburg is an anchor institution in the city of Lynchburg because of the work that students, faculty, and staff do and the relationships that they create, both on and off campus,” King, who also is a Bonner Leader, said.
“When things were at their most difficult, what kept me going were the moments that I saw each and every one you connecting with and giving back to this community. Regardless of the hardships that [arose], each of us stand here today having reached the other side, despite it all.”
University President Dr. Alison Morrison-Shetlar commended the graduates for how they rallied to face the challenges of the pandemic, which loomed large on their time at Lynchburg. “The past three years have been trying for all of us as we navigated the pandemic and an uncertain future,” she said.
“I am so proud of how you all came together to face these challenges head on, and I am delighted that we are closer than 6 feet [apart]. This is an amazing achievement. … It is what the Lynchburg experience is all about. What a treat to see your smiling faces as today we celebrate your accomplishments.”
Morrison-Shetlar also introduced the 2023 keynote speaker, Daniel Paige Toney ’11 — known professionally as “Daniel Paige.”
Paige, an award-winning fashion designer and illustrator based in Los Angeles, is originally from Gretna, Virginia, what he describes as a “teeny tiny town about 30 minutes south of Lynchburg.”
He studied multidisciplinary art at Lynchburg, with emphases in graphic design and drawing and painting. He also has a Master of Fine Arts in fashion design from the Academy of Art University in San Francisco.
Paige currently leads the fashion illustration program at Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles and teaches at ASU FIDM — Arizona State University’s fashion design school. When he’s not teaching, he works as a designer, illustrator, and costumer in the fashion and entertainment industries.
He has worked with many well-respected fashion figures, designers, and stylists over the years and his illustrations have been featured in Vogue and published in the Fashion Illustration Bible, or FIBLE.
Paige spoke to graduates about facing and overcoming fear in the pursuit of their dreams. It’s something he’s struggled with in several areas of his life — from changing his major from biomedical science to art, to coming out “with the support of my incredible friend group from Lynchburg,” to speaking at Commencement, which he admitted was a scary prospect.
“One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to lean into that fear, because fear itself presents us with an opportunity to grow and discover our true potential,” he said. “When we are faced with situations that seem daunting, it’s natural to feel overwhelmed and hesitant.
“However, it’s important to recognize that fear is not always a bad thing. I encourage you all to face that fear you might be holding, whatever it may be, and use it as an opportunity to explore new territories, learn new skills, and challenge yourself to become the best possible you.
“Lynchburg has equipped you with all the fortitude that you need to excel in this world and make a positive impact.”
You can watch a live recording of the Undergraduate Commencement Ceremony here.
Lynchburg’s Baccalaureate ceremony was held the evening before Commencement, at 5 p.m. Wednesday, May 17, in Snidow Chapel.
At Baccalaureate, graduating members of Lynchburg’s men’s lacrosse team were awarded their diplomas. On Commencement day, the team — which advanced to the NCAA Division III Elite Eight — would be traveling to Medford, Massachusetts, to play No. 1-ranked Tufts University at 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 20.
Also during the ceremony, Norma S. White ’90, ’94 MEd and MaryJane Tousignant Dolan were each presented with the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters.
White is a two-time graduate of the University, earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1990 and her Master of Education in agency counseling in 1994. In 2000, she founded Couples & Kids, a nonprofit counseling center which has helped hundreds of families, couples, and individuals through play therapy and other techniques.
A $2 million gift to her alma mater in 2021 created two new endowments: the Connie A. Messerschmidt Access Student Scholarship and the Norma S. White Counseling Professorship.
MaryJane Tousignant Dolan was a member of the University of Lynchburg Board of Trustees from 1997 to 2022. She moved to Lynchburg, Virginia, from Minnesota in 1978. Here, she founded Colonial Brokerage House, an insurance brokerage firm she led for more than 40 years.
In 2016, Dolan was elected to Lynchburg City Council, where she served as vice mayor from 2018 to 2020 and mayor from 2020 to 2022. She also has served on many local boards and committees and has received numerous awards for her service to the community.
The Baccalaureate address was given by Dr. Amy Merrill Willis, associate professor of religious studies, chair of the religious studies department, and interim director of general education at Lynchburg.
After describing the event as “an important celebration, filled with gravity and significance” and herself as a “serious person who teaches serious subjects,” Merrill Willis launched into a story about campus squirrels.
In particular, she spoke of one she calls “Apple,” which she first encountered — unexpectedly and face-to-face — next to a trash can in front of Carnegie Hall. “That encounter changed me,” she said, “and now I find myself positively smitten with our furry Dell companions.”
Merrill Willis — holding a plush version of Apple, which makes appearances in her classroom and on the Dell Gen Ed Instagram account — said squirrels “make good subjects for interdisciplinary study.” They also remind her of the place they’re encountered most often at Lynchburg: the Dell.
Like a squirrel, Merrill Willis’ talk zigged and zagged, from the “pure magic” of the Dell — “heart of our campus” and scene of many “teachable moments” with squirrels — to how the Dell became a “new safe haven” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Merrill Willis said she hoped graduates would “engage the world with love,” and she let them in on what she described as a “poorly kept secret”: that many faculty and staff “hate it when students graduate” and “would rather keep you here with us.”
She added, “Nevertheless, we know that it is our job to equip you and send you out into a world that needs your skills and abilities. If we have done our jobs well, then you will be able to make your way into that world responsibly and thoughtfully.
“If we have done our jobs well, then you will be able to engage the bigger world with integrity and imagination.”
You can watch a live recording of Baccalaureate here.