Ever since the tassels were moved on Saturday, messages of gratitude have flowed into Liberty University. From words of gratefulness from graduates for being able to participate in a grand celebration to thank-yous from parents for the university’s guidance, instruction and care for their children, many were pleased to be a part of Liberty’s largest Commencement ceremony.
More than 30,000 attended the main ceremony, with over 6, 000 graduates participating.
Liberty’s Facebook page has been abuzz with posts from graduates.
Emily Raush writes: “Choosing to attend Liberty University was one of the best decisions of my life, and I can’t believe college is already over. So thankful for the best friends and wonderful memories I’ve made, as well as being encouraged to become a champion for Christ. Gonna miss this!”
Kyle Klein had similar sentiments: “Had literally one of the most amazing weekends ever. It was an honor to graduate from Liberty University along with some of the greatest friends I'll ever have and to hear an inspiring commencement address by the man who may be the next President of the United States. I've had the best college experience for which I could possibly ask and my only regret is that I can't remain an undergraduate with my friends forever.”
While more than 2,000 participants in Saturday’s ceremony were residential graduates, they were outnumbered by the more than 3,800 Liberty University Online graduates who came to campus for Commencement, an opportunity that is not available through many online universities. Two-thirds of the online graduates at Liberty last weekend were visiting for the first time.
“They came from all over the country and all over the world to be here at our Commencement. That is a tribute to how Liberty has touched them,” said Larry Shackleton, Vice President and Registrar. “We had people who drove from California, who drove from the far West to come here; they were just as excited to be here as someone who has attended here [on campus] four years.”
Eric Echevarria earned his Master of Arts in Pastoral Counseling online. He travelled to Lynchburg from Washington, D.C., for the first time. He said he arrived “stressed” at 9:30 a.m. for the 10 a.m. ceremony.
“I did not know where to go, or what to do to make my presence known, so I looked for the first red T-shirt I could find and almost immediately my stress levels went from high to low in a matter of seconds,” Echevarria wrote in an email to the Registrar’s Office. “Even though I am a total stranger, Patrice A. Narbis [an assistant with the Registrar’s Office] was kind enough to take me by the hand (along with my family), to help me obtain my honor cord, find my assigned reader card, and provide clear instructions about where I was supposed to be. … Patrice reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan, because without knowing me she made me feel right at home. As an online student this was my first time traveling down to Lynchburg, Va., and thanks to Patrice it will forever remain as one of the more memorable experiences of my life.”
It was also the first trip for Holly Dunlap, who received a Master of Christian Ministry from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. "I did have a fantastic weekend. I came down from Lake Placid, N.Y. Lynchburg, VA, is the furthest south that I have ever been," she writes.
A member of the Falwell family also graduated on Saturday. Matthew Falwell received a Juris Doctor from Liberty University School of Law. His grandfather, L.T. Falwell, Sr., was the brother of Liberty's founder, Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr.
Matthew's father, L.T. Falwell, Jr., expressed his gratitude to the university.
"That ceremony will be special to all there for the rest of our lives," he said.
According to Shackleton, more than 750 Liberty staff were involved in Commencement Weekend this year, as well as 2,000 members of Liberty’s Student Leadership team.
“There were very few people at Liberty who weren’t involved in this,” he said. “The entire staff and faculty pitch in to make this event a success. They put their hearts and souls into this. They work over(time). People are here all night Friday night, nobody complains, they just jump in and do it.”
Chancellor and President Jerry Falwell, Jr. said he was pleased with the cooperation between the departments and students to execute Liberty’s largest Commencement.
“I saw on Saturday a demonstration of how Liberty University students, faculty and staff live as Jesus taught by treating others as they would want to be treated,” Falwell said.
He said a Secret Service agent told him it took about two hours to process the graduates through metal detectors and that the agent was astonished at how polite and well-mannered Liberty graduates were despite the inconvenience, after he experienced just the opposite at another university recently.
“The agent said that, in that previous experience at a secular university, it took over six hours to process fewer students because of a lack of cooperation,” Falwell said. “He said many students at that university were intoxicated and others expressed their anger about the screening by cursing at the agents. The agent told us that his colleagues were pleasantly surprised by how well they were treated at Liberty and by how kind and polite our staff and students were to them. He said many agents commented about how there really is something different about Liberty University. Hearing observations like that warms my heart and confirms that Liberty is fulfilling its mission of training champions for Christ.”
In addition to the main ceremony and 22 separate degree presentation ceremonies on Saturday, staff were responsible for three large events Friday night: a reception for online students and their families at Williams Stadium, a Baccalaureate service in the Vines Center and a special military recognition ceremony that followed Baccalaureate.
Shackleton said Liberty goes “to phenomenal lengths” to take care of its guests, including housing 1,760 in rooms on campus, at the Campus East Apartments and at the Liberty University Residential Annex.
Liberty staff members were available to direct guests at all events and those who had trouble walking longer distances were accommodated by golf carts, driven by staff from different university departments.
Gov. Mitt Romney’s visit was no doubt a memorable one. Chancellor Falwell recounted the visit on CNN Newsroom Monday morning:
“Many of our graduates said after his speech that they were worried it would be a campaign speech, they didn’t want their graduation speech to be political and they were very pleased that it was not political — it was about them, it was about their future and I think in that sense, he made a lot of friends here Saturday,” he said.
Liberty University student Anthony D. Simonetti said Romney did “an excellent job slipping in political comments here and there, mixing in religious truths that are essential and were well received by the audience, and tying in the economical possibilities that await the graduates and America if they/it chooses the right path.”
Witnessing the many members of Romney’s campaign and the Secret Service on hand, one student told of a positive experience in an email to the chancellor. Andrew Claudio, a student who serves as a manager at Liberty’s student radio station, 90.9 The Light, wrote:
“I was speaking with the Secret Service agent that escorted all of us (photographers) to the middle of the field during the ceremony. She told me that she was very impressed with our school and how her time here this week exceeded all of her expectations. She then said, after your speech, ‘It is amazing just how much this school has grown under his tenure. That’s no disrespect to his father at all because you can see how passionate he is about his father’s vision and making it a reality.’ I cannot even begin to explain the feeling of pride I felt for my school after this conversation. Liberty has meant a lot to me and my future and I cannot wait to see what God does from here!”
Many said the ceremony was a fitting tribute to the school’s founder.
On May 14, 2007, the night before he died, Falwell, Sr., was served at a local restaurant by a waitress who told him of her struggle to pay for school and he agreed to help her with her tuition.
That student was Ashley Mooney, who graduated on Saturday with a B.S. degree in Health Promotion. Barry McChesney, her grandfather, wrote in an email to Liberty:
“The family of Ashley Nicole Mooney would like to thank the Falwell family for the gift Jerry [Sr.] gave our granddaughter as his last wish. We are happy to tell you Ashley graduated yesterday from Liberty … out of the goodness of Jerry’s last wish. We can never thank you and your family for this miracle, but you and your family will forever be in our prayers and hearts. God bless you all and thank God for Jerry Falwell.”