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Spring 2007 Commencement - Special Remarks

President Charles W. Steger

May 11, 2007

Ladies and Gentlemen, today is a special day, a time of celebration; a time that marks both an end and a beginning; a moment filled with joy for what our graduates have accomplished, and with anticipation of the bright future that lies ahead.

Yet, today our celebrations and our joy are subdued in recognition of the great tragedy that befell our university, our community on April 16th.  Our minds still reel from the violence, and our hearts still ache for those slain and injured and their families and friends.  We know the emotional wounds may be even harder to heal.

As difficult as it is to relive that day, we yearn to pay homage to those cherished members of our Virginia Tech family who we lost that morning — whom the world lost that cold, blustery morning.

 We wish to pay tribute to those innocent and beautiful young minds who wholeheartedly joined the university community seeking knowledge and growth -- and to the dedicated professors who were devoted to imparting that knowledge and nurturing that growth.

They wanted to make their mark as individuals, to be a part of the greater world and make it better – and those of us assembled here tonight can attest that they succeeded.

We remember them as caring, kind, compassionate and loving.   They were serious about their goals, but fun-loving in pursuit of those aspirations.  They were hard working, yet enjoyed their relaxation, whether through horseback riding or tennis or kayaking. They played volleyball, basketball and lacrosse.  They were musicians and dancers.

 A clergyman at one of the memorial services reflected that the most important aspect of a gravestone is not the name or the dates of birth and demise, but rather the dash between those dates – because that symbolizes the person’s life. Their impact on this earth is not a function of the number of years that they lived, but how they lived.

Although so young, they had managed to accomplish much. In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well.”

They came here from Blacksburg and Roanoke and throughout Virginia, from several other states and the Choctaw Nation . . .from Canada and Egypt . . . from India and Indonesia . . . from Puerto Rico and Peru.  They were citizens of the world.

Each was gifted and talented and unique.

They were Hokies. 

The Hokie Nation was first used to describe those who filled the seats in this stadium, who identified with and loved Virginia Tech.   But in the dark days of our suffering, we have seen this phrase take on a greater and deeper meaning.

It is one of a community coming together – yes, to mourn and pour out our grief, but also coming together to help each other, to lift others’ burdens while our own weighed so heavily upon us.  Millions around the world have witnessed and been touched by the Hokie Spirit.

I received a letter a few days back from an incoming freshman of the class of 2011.  She said, candidly, that after the tragedy, she had considered changing her academic plans for next year.  But then after watching how we all came together, she decided that there was no place she’d rather spend the next four years.

She was moved by the Hokie Spirit. So was our nation.  So was I.

The grief counselors – and bless them for all the work they have done and are doing to help us heal – they tell us that when we become overwhelmed with negative feelings, we should remind ourselves of people and events that are meaningful and encouraging.

We have seen many such people and acts in the past few weeks, and we are forever thankful to all for their concern and care.

Our faculty and staff deserve a special ‘thank you.’  While grieving greatly, they wiped their tears, rolled up their sleeves and went to work, doing anything and everything they could to keep us going when we were struck numb. They voluntarily arose early and willingly stayed late into the night.  They were magnificent in the most difficult of times.

They are Hokies.

How do we thank the members of the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg Police, the Montgomery County Sherriff’s Departments, and the Virginia State Police who threw aside concerns for their own safety to rush to our aid?  And the reinforcements that came willingly from other localities and universities around the state?  Without complaint, they stayed around the clock to maintain calm and restore our shattered sense of security.  They were brave. They were dedicated. They were courageous.

They are Hokies.

What words can erase the horrific scenes witnessed by members of the Virginia Tech and Blacksburg Rescue Squads?  They stifled their own fears to tend to the wounded and speed them to hospitals.  They are heroes. They are life savers.

They are Hokies.

Earlier this week, the Virginia Tech Rescue Squad, for its members’ heroic actions, was presented the Stars of Life Award by the National Ambulance Association at a ceremony in Washington, D.C.  

I think there are some Graduating members with us this evening, and I ask that they stand and be recognized.  We are very proud, and thankful that they are Hokies.

Members of Hokies United have worked tirelessly in helping us heal, through the Candlelight Vigil, the noon Moment of Silence, the Memorials on the Drill field and in myriad other ways.  It is truly amazing what willing hearts and hands can do. I would ask them to stand and be recognized, too.

We are grateful that -- They are Hokies.

In every corner of this nation, Virginia Tech alumni have held vigils and poured forth their support, and we are most thankful that they remain such loyal members of the Hokie Nation.

You students returned as classes resumed and told reporters, “This is home,” and that you came back “because I think my professors needed me.”   Many were amazed as you repeatedly demonstrated what strong bonds link us Hokies together.   We are indeed the Virginia Tech Family.

In coming here to help us heal, Governor Tim Kaine and President Bush both noted this incredible strength of the Virginia Tech community.

And the Hokie Nation has spread worldwide.  Niagara Falls was bathed in Orange and Maroon lights – a beautiful tribute to the Hokie spirit.

In my office, we received an American flag that was flown at half-staff at the Statue of Liberty – that beacon of hope for a brighter future.

Queen Elizabeth brought wonderful words of condolence and encouragement.

A tree was planted on our behalf in Jerusalem’s Rabin Peace Park, and a friend called to let me know that he was sending a Hokie flag that flew over the U.S. Embassy in Vienna, Austria.

Indeed, the Hokie Nation reaches even into space.  A special Virginia Tech flag has been designed, at the request of NASA, to be carried into space.

It is heartening that these lights of compassion and care have shone through the deep darkness of our suffering.

This day is also one of those lights, one of those beacons, guiding us toward the future. In the lyrical language of the Psalms we hear that  “weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

 Our hearts have been broken, but our spirit—that Hokie Spirit, which has captured the admiration of millions – remains strong. . . and our resolve is strong. 

We were all touched by the stirring words of Nikki Giovanni – an internationally renowned Hokie – when she proclaimed, “We are Virginia Tech. We will prevail.”

In her words, “We are alive to the imaginations and the possibilities. We will continue to invent the future. . .”

And, among the thousands and thousands of messages of sympathy and condolences that we have received was this simple statement:

“Your loss is great, but your goal is our children’s future.”

How can we not be resolute and determined to go forward when we are reminded so poignantly -- and by so many -- of why Virginia Tech is here and what it stands for?

At our core, we are Virginia Tech. We are a great university that has a special role to play in the world.

We come together in the quest for knowledge – learning about ourselves and about the world in which we live.  We seek new discoveries to improve our own well-being and, by reaching out to the broader community, to improve life on this planet and beyond.

As we continue our quest and pursue our mission, we will prove that the Hokie spirit is indomitable.   Let our most lasting memorial to those who were snatched from our midst be our achievements.  Let each of us seek out those who are needful, so that we may find a way to fill their needs.  Let us live our professional and personal lives in a manner that moves the world forward.  Is that not what it means to “Invent the future”?

Please know that moving on is not the same as forgetting.  We shall not forget. Yet, one senseless burst of violence – as horrible and hurtful as it is – will not turn us from our essence.   

Let April 16th be on our future calendars.  Yes, to remember those precious members of our community who we lost. . . But also to renew our commitment to learning and growing . . . to rededicate ourselves to being outstanding citizens of this great nation and the world. . . to be a bright light on the horizon of tomorrow that will chase away the darkness of our fears, to show the world once again that We. . .are. . . Virginia Tech!

In closing, I want to speak a moment to our graduates…

Revel in the joy of this day. . . Celebrate your accomplishments. . . Celebrate all those lives that have touched yours and helped bring you to this point.  Reach out and hug them if you can.

And, to all of our students here today—those graduating and those who will be returning—I wish I could reach out and hug each one of you.  You are the reason I get out of bed in the morning.  You are my passion -- the focus of my days and most of my nights.  You are the future . . . and your achievements will be felt around the globe.

I…could…not…possibly…be more proud of you than I am at this moment.  You have united, and you have shown the world the meaning of Ut Prosim, that I may serve. 

I love you all….