With diplomas fresh in their hands, George Mason University Graduates listened as Gov. Mark Warner (D) told them at Saturday’s commencement that they must continue to support George Mason and Virginia’s higher education system as they leave the university’s hallowed halls.
"As graduates, never underestimate or lose sight of what it took to build George Mason into what it is today," Warner said. "Behind your degree stands plenty of hard work and sacrifice. And for that, you should be very proud."
Warner spoke to thousands of graduates and their families and friends during George Mason’s 36th commencement ceremony. For 2003, its largest class ever, George Mason University awarded 7,720 bachelor’s, master’s, law and doctoral degrees.
Warner’s commencement address pointed to Virginia’s budget crisis, as well as to possible cuts to higher education, despite demographic predictions that Virginia’s university system will need over 30,000 new seats over the next decade.
"Despite the enormous success of last fall’s General Obligation Bond Campaign, we still have many buildings and labs that are not in proper condition for a 21st century education," Warner said. "The severe stress on faculty salaries in the midst of the budget crisis has made it harder to keep the best and brightest professors in our state system.
"In short, the tradition of excellence that we celebrate on this and other Virginia campuses won’t be sustained unless more Virginians—particularly its most recent graduates—recognize and embrace the value of our basic investments in public education. And this applies to investments both at the kindergarten through 12 level, and in our colleges and universities. We can’t have education on the cheap."
DESPITE THE WARNINGS of a budget ax to George Mason and to other public universities, graduates still managed to be festive during the ceremony. They waved to family and friends In the bleachers of the Patriot Center, while a few blew up beach balls and threw them around until the balls were confiscated.
Commencement student speaker Valerie Johnson, who had just earned a bachelor’s degree in communication, urged fellow graduates to enjoy the present moment.
"Taste the honey-coated candy of success and smile because today is our day — we’ve earned it. We are the stars — this is our red carpet. Simply put — let’s celebrate." Johnson said.
She added that despite September 11, the fall sniper attacks and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the university community came together through open dialogue, candlelight vigils and counseling.
"Let’s celebrate our strength, our perseverance and our ability to endure the tough times together," Johnson said.
After the ceremony, graduates used their cell phones to find their families outside of the Patriot Center. Some stood on patches of elevated ground to scan the crowd, while other families rushed with screams of delight to their graduates.
Steve Kattula of Fairfax found his younger brother, Patrick. They were going out to lunch with the rest of their family to celebrate Kattula’s graduation.
For Kattula, the only difference in preparing for that day was that he couldn’t use his cell phone to wake him up. It was broken.
"I cracked my blinds open," Kattula said. "I made sure the sun woke me up."