More than 5,500 Liberty University Online graduates and their friends and family gathered at Williams Stadium for a reception celebrating their achievements.
The Class of 2012, with 14,012 graduates, includes more than 11,000 who have earned their degrees online.
The annual event, held as part of the Commencement weekend festivities, featured light refreshments and appearances by administrators from the various programs offered through Liberty University.
Johnson asked for a show of hands: more than half of the crowd at the reception indicated they were seeing Liberty’s campus for the first time.
Several online graduates said they were fortunate to be able to participate in a graduation ceremony, an opportunity that sets Liberty Online apart from other online universities.
Hawkins recognized the accomplishments of the online graduates, many who have completed their degrees while working full time, raising families or serving in the military.
“You’re all winners for overcoming obstacles and difficulties to get to this point,” Hawkins said.
This year’s online graduates include 2,651 military personnel.
“Liberty is one of the most military friendly universities in the country,” Godwin said.
U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Scott Ostrowski from Charlotte, N.C., is receiving his Master of Divinity from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary. He said it took him five years to earn his degree. During that time, he was deployed and his father passed away.
“It’s amazing what God has brought me through,” he said.
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Travis Wilson is receiving his Master of Arts in Management and Leadership this weekend, after returning from a year in Afghanistan.
“I’m very thankful for the flexibility Liberty offers and it means a lot,” he said.
Jessica Endress, a flight attendant from Atlanta, Ga., is receiving her Bachelor of Science in Education. She attended the reception with her 18-month-old son and her husband.
Endress, who was a student at Liberty in 2008, said she was excited to return to campus and was looking forward to “seeing how much the campus has changed since I was last here.”
Todd Shellnutt, from Monroe, N.C., is receiving his Bachelor of Science in Aeronautics.
“I was very pleased with my program and getting to meet my professors and leadership,” he said.
Several graduates waited their turn to meet and have their pictures taken with professors and administrators, including Liberty co-founder Dr. Elmer Towns.
“Many of these students have studied with Dr. Towns, have learned from him, but they have never actually met him, so the opportunity to ‘press the flesh’ was a wonderful opportunity,” Johnson said.
He said the reception has become a tradition the last four years.
“We celebrate with our students the accomplishments they have achieved, and the hard work they put in to get to this day,” Johnson said.
The online reception kicked off the events for graduation weekend, which include the Baccalaureate service Friday night, featuring world-renowned evangelist Luis Palau, and the 39th Commencement exercises on Saturday, featuring former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.