STAUNTON — There were three 17-year-olds, a 60-year-old, and a 61-year-old who walked across the Mary Baldwin University stage at the school’s 177th commencement ceremony late Sunday morning. In between those five, were 418 other graduates of diverse gender, culture, and nationality, all united in the excitement of accomplishment and success.
“Please accept these degrees as a sacred trust and hold it in honor,” MBC President Pamela Fox said to the graduates and undergraduates assembled on Page Terrace in front of the Martha Grafton Library on the lower level of the campus. Looking down on the students was a colorful sea of family and friends who filled the green lawn between the terrace and the upper row of buildings to capacity.
Of the undergraduates, 94 lived in the university’s residential colleges and 136 were MBU online students. Master's degrees were also conferred in the College of Education (46), Shakespeare and performance (33) and business administration (11). The Murphy Deming College of Health Sciences conferred 103 degrees: 36 were doctorates of occupational therapy, 34 doctorates of physical therapy degrees, 26 master of science degrees for becoming a physician assistant and seven were master's in health care administration.
Dorie Clark, an adjunct professor at Duke University, who is also an author and motivational speaker, delivered the commencement address under a blazing sun. Clark attended Mary Baldwin’s Program for the Exceptionally Gifted for two years as a teenager.
“Today is a day to celebrate all you have accomplished. Tomorrow is the day to craft who you want to be,” Clark told the graduates. To that end she offered six points of advice:
Learn the importance of networking early in your career and build those relationships; remember that location matters when you choose where you will live and work; actively work to build your circle of colleagues; don’t spend time on things you don’t want to do; choose who you listen to for advice; and, finally, remember that no learning is ever in vain.
Many of MBU’s graduates on Sunday earned their degrees in a nonlinear, nontraditional fashion. Some were veterans, going back to school on the GI Bill, and others were adults returning to the classroom after other life experiences.
Case in point was Augusta County teacher Jennifer Landes, who received her undergraduate teaching degree. Landes, who is already a teacher’s aide with her own classroom at Stewart Middle School, will enter the classroom next year as a full-fledged, fully licensed language arts teacher.
On hand to see her graduate summa cum laude was her husband, Matt, and their two children, Hannah and Lydia, as well as her parents, Harold and Denise Shifflett.
Sunday’s graduation is just one of two for the family this week, as the youngest Landes daughter, Lydia, is graduating from Fort Defiance High School. Both Lydia and her mother graduated with 4.0 GPAs.
Mom also was named the Outstanding Graduate of the Mary Baldwin College of Education, a feat for which she was recognized at the graduation ceremony. However, she was unable to attend the MBU banquet to accept the honor on Saturday night because she had to attend her daughter’s graduation party.
For Jennifer Landes, earning her diploma on Sunday was the culmination of 20 years of effort.
“I graduated from Fort in 1996. Then I attended Bridgewater College for one year, got married, had kids, and home-schooled them, and then worked as a teacher’s aide for the last four years,” she explained. “But I always planned to be a teacher. The adult degree program at Mary Baldwin seemed to be a good fit for me.”
Her husband Matt added that her accomplishment took a lot of hard work and dedication.
“It took her just three years, which is amazing considering that she was also working full time and doing a lot of running with our daughters,” he said.
Landes' eldest daughter, Hannah, is attending Blue Ridge and is training to be a sign language interpreter. Lydia plans to follow in her father’s footsteps by going to Virginia Tech and earning an engineering degree.
As for Jennifer’s parents and Lydia’s grandparents, Harold and Denise Shifflett, they appeared to be bursting with pride as they handed a bouquet of flowers to their new MBU alumna. “It has been amazing to watch all along the way. We are very proud of both of them,” they said of the two graduates.
On Sunday, as the formal festivities drew to a close, the hillside on the campus was alive with the celebration of hundreds of unique stories like that of the Landes family. As MBU's Fox sent the graduates off into the world, she reminded them that they were now part of a legacy of such stories that stretched back to the early 19th century.
“You are now imbued with the mission, the spirit, the very DNA of Mary Baldwin that has been here for 177 years,” she said.