Pharrell Williams speaks at 2019 Valedictory Exercises

Students challenged to use empathy to enact change

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Pharrell Williams — a Virginia Beach native and Grammy award-winning musician and producer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist and fashion designer — was this year’s keynote speaker.

Riley Walsh | Cavalier Daily

Pharrell Williams — Grammy award-winning musician and producer, entrepreneur, philanthropist, activist and fashion designer from Virginia Beach, Va. — delivered the keynote address at Friday’s Valedictory Exercises as part of the University’s Class of 2019 graduation weekend. Throughout his speech, he referenced humility and passion for education and social change as keys for success.

Williams began his speech by highlighting the April 2019 “Something in the Water Festival” that he organized in Virginia Beach, stating that “Virginia is having a very serious moment.” That moment, Williams said, extends to the graduating student body of the University.

Although his public position as an influencer has allowed him to meet leaders such as Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama, Williams said that he did not think of himself as a leader. Rather, he believed that the graduates had a better chance of leading him one day and solving many of the world’s problems. Williams ended by challenging students to go on and make even more change.

“The only way to make life better for yourself is to make life better for others,” Williams said.

Williams touched on his frustrations regarding issues such as the history of enslaved labor at the University, racial discrimination, women’s reproductive rights, accessibility for the disabled, income and education disparities, LGBTQ marriage laws and the impacts of algorithms.

“Your empathy will guide you to the right answers,” Williams said, after having the audience participate by raising their hand if they have ever felt “othered.” “Loving something means loving it enough to make it better. History has been anticipating you. Don’t let it wait any longer.” 

The ceremony also featured the presentation of awards from the Class of 2019 and from secret societies, as well as the presentation of the class gift. 

Fourth-year College student Jordan Arnold, former women’s lacrosse coach Jane Miller, and Rehan Baddeliyanage, a fourth-year Engineering student who passed away this semester, represented by his brother Roshan, each received an Algernon Sydney Sullivan award — given to those who “honor service above self.” 

The Seven Society presented the Louis A. Onesty Memorial Scholar-Athlete Award to Anna Redding, a fourth-year College student and member of the women’s golf team.

The Seven Society’s James Earle Sargeant Award, given to an organization that makes major contributions to the University community, was awarded to the Living Wage Campaign at UVA, which lobbied the University to implement a living wage of $16.84 an hour, in addition to healthcare benefits. As a result of their efforts, the University announced in March that it will increase its minimum wage for full-time employees eligible for benefits to $15 per hour by Jan. 1, 2020.

The Seven Society also pledged to donate $47,777.77 in order to begin a fund that would finance housing for students selected to live on the Lawn but impaired by their financial situation.

Class of 2019 Awards were given for Community Service to Corinne Singh, for her work in the Charlottesville Free Clinic as a phlebotomist after she noticed a lack of staff, and for Cultural Fluency to Rawda Fawaz, a fourth-year College student who held positions in PULSE, Dreamers on Grounds and Sustained Dialogue during her time on Grounds.

A new Class of 2019 Award — the Bicentennial Leadership Award — was given to fourth-year College student Austin Widner for his work helping the University hone its outreach to students from rural areas of Virginia, such as by advising the University to talk more about financial aid during high-school visits.

Claudrena Harold, professor of African American and African Studies and History, was awarded the Gordon F. Rainey, Jr. Award for Vigilance to the Student Experience by the Society of the Purple Shadows in honor of her “ability to validate the many ways of ‘knowing’” in her students. 

This year’s class gift of $44,473 was donated to the University by over 1,000 students, with 100 percent participation from the School of Nursing. 

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