Friday’s pre-Commencement ceremonies included separate two-hour receptions for resident and online students at Liberty University’s Williams Stadium. This was the first year Liberty held a reception for residential graduates and their families.
To celebrate, graduating students and their guests heard from members of administration and were treated to cupcakes, donuts, cotton candy, ice cream, kettle corn, and soft drinks in a carnival-like atmosphere under the stadium concourse and beside the adjacent Osborne Soccer Stadium, where tents were set up with representatives from various degree programs.
Liberty Provost Dr. Ron Godwin, senior vice president for academic affairs, told the residential students how Liberty has been blessed with exponential growth since Dr. Jerry Falwell, Sr. founded it in 1971.
“The first graduating class in 1974 had 46 students,” he said. “This year, Liberty University’s graduating class has 15,443 students and about half of them will actually march, that’s about 7,326. It’s a miracle, literally a miracle. Liberty is now the largest Christian evangelical school in the entire world.”
Larry Shackleton, vice president for administrative information, encouraged graduating residential students to stop by and visit with the faculty and administrators who have guided them toward their degrees.
Michael Johnson, Jr., a tight end on the Flames’ football team and business finance major graduating with honors, had the chance to show his family the football facilities with a guided tour from coach Turner Gill.
In addressing the Liberty University Online crowd, many of whom were making their first visit on campus, Falwell, Jr. lauded the program for enabling students to achieve their career goals through distance education.
“We just thank you so much for making the trip to Lynchburg,” he said. ”We started out in 1985. We decided it was part of our mission to make Christian education affordable and as accessible as possible to as many people as possible. I receive testimonials from online students all the time thanking us for making this program available. They tell me it’s the only way they ever could have obtained their college degree, the only way they could have realized their dream.”
One of those is Andrea Bassett, who made the 12-hour trip from Georgia with her family that included husband Bruce, a U.S. Air Force veteran, daughters Alena and Suzanna, and mother Susan Ranson to receive her master’s degree in education.
“We’re going to Baccalaureate, military service, Commencement, degree presentation, we’re going to do it all,” Andrea Bassett said. “If it wasn’t online, I wouldn’t be able to do it because I work full time. I look for, maybe in a couple of years, to come back for my doctorate.”
Falwell congratulated the graduates for all their hard work.
“We’re so proud of what you’ve accomplished. Over 32,000 people will be here (Saturday). We’re now the largest private non-profit university in the country, mainly because of you, our online students.”
Of the more than 7,500 students who will march in the 40th Commencement ceremonies, more than 5,000 will be Liberty Online graduates.
Dr. Ron Hawkins, vice provost and vice president for academic affairs, applauded them for not only making the journey, but completing their degrees.
“I’ll bet one of our favorite verses today is wisdom from Solomon, ‘Better is the end of a matter than the beginning,’” he said, referring to Ecclesiastes 7:8. “Aren’t you glad that you’ve come to this ending? What a wonderful thing. You are our heroes because you’ve balanced family and responsibilities on the job, and a checkbook, to come to this point in your lives, so we celebrate you.”