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Liberty Journal

40th Commencement: Celebrating historic accomplishments, continuous growth

Summer 2013 : By Drew Menard

It was a historic day for Liberty University as it celebrated its 40th Commencement May 11, featuring the largest graduating class to date, more than 15,000 strong — about 1,000 more than last year. Over 7,000 graduates participated in the Commencement exercises at Williams Stadium.

Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. used the opportunity to announce that the university surpassed 100,000 in total enrollment on May 7, another milestone for the 42 year-old university as it continues to extend its reach and influence as the world’s largest Christian university. Falwell predicted at the 2012 Commencement ceremonies that Liberty would enroll 100,000 students within one year.  That goal was reached just four days short of the predicted date.

Falwell said each May he receives dozens of messages from graduates who tell him their stories and express their gratitude for Liberty University.

“The common theme is always how many of them never could have obtained a college degree if not for Liberty University Online,” he said.

More than 80 percent of the Class of 2013 are adults who studied primarily online, with the average age being 35.

“As part of Liberty’s Christian mission, we have always sought to make Christian education as affordable and as accessible for as many individuals as possible,” Falwell said. “Liberty University Online is achieving this objective every day, making the dreams of tens of thousands of men and women come true.”

For the first time, Liberty welcomed one of its own as the keynote speaker for the main Commencement ceremony — Fox News reporter Shannon Bream (’93), the first graduate to be the keynote speaker since Liberty became an accredited university in 1980 and the first female Commencement speaker (read more about Bream). Bream recalled her graduation 20 years ago and hearing about Falwell, Sr.’s vision for Liberty’s future.

“It is thrilling to see how far God has brought Liberty in just 40 years, and also to hear the vision for where it is going to go. … Liberty is a place like no other,” she said.

As Chancellor Falwell addressed the crowd, he spoke of where Liberty is today, and where it is headed. He announced that Liberty’s new College of Osteopathic Medicine — set to matriculate its first class in Fall 2014 — has received provisional accreditation (read more). He announced that Liberty’s net worth (exceeding $1 billion) now equals much older schools like Pepperdine, Georgetown, and Tulane, according to the Washington Post. He told the crowd that his goal is for Liberty to achieve what very few universities in history ever have — “to become the first school in the country to achieve academic and athletic prominence, but also to stay true to our Christian roots for generations to come.” Many universities in the New World strayed from their theological foundations in order to attract donations needed for survival, he said, but “Liberty’s financial strength will help avoid a similar fate.”

Chancellor Falwell also thanked the graduates for their positive attitude and patience during a time of many changes, including a number of major construction projects, as the university prepares to train more generations of Champions for Christ with a “greatly enhanced student experience.”

At a very somber moment in the ceremony, Falwell honored five individuals “who would have graduated on Saturday had they not made the ultimate sacrifice for their country:” Chief Warrant Officer Shawn Adolphus (Atlanta, Ga.), James Bergin (Martinsburg, W.Va.), Scott Rathbone (Hickory, N.C.), Christina Thompson (Dacula, Ga.), and David Ward (Bedford, Va.). He applauded the university for being one of the nation’s most military friendly schools, with more than 25,000 military students and 4,171 military graduates this year, 800 of which are serving on active duty.

Several special honors were given at Commencement, including the Chancellor’s Awards for Excellence in Teaching (see list), followed by a brief address from Baccalaureate speaker Dr. Ravi Zacharias.

Shannon Bream receives an honorary doctoral degree from Chancellor Jerry Falwell, Jr. (right), Dr. Ron Hawkins, vice provost and vice president for academic affairs (left), and Dr. Ron Godwin, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs.

Falwell then introduced Bream and bestowed on her an honorary degree for her efforts on the “front lines” of some of the most prominent court cases today — many of which will likely chart the course of the United States for generations, he said.

“In a time where most news networks pick and choose the headlines to advance their agendas, reporters like Shannon Bream hold high the banner of what journalism was meant to be — and what it is still taught to be at this university — service to the public marked by its objectivity and truthfulness,” Falwell said.

As Bream addressed the graduating class, she challenged them to go forward proclaiming truth and delivering compassion to the world around them.

She told them they are not to live a “watered-down version” of the truth but to live boldly and unapologetically, like Jesus Christ did. That is the kind of life Dr. Falwell would “expect his Liberty grads to live.”

“You are heading out into the world with your ambitions and hopes and dreams at a critical time,” Bream said. “There is a lot of uncertainty, there is fear, and those who would like to create chaos and take innocent lives. ... You will need to be strong, principled, and brave. And having earned an education that emphasizes not only facts and figures, but also absolute truths — I know you are ready.

“Now is not the time to stand silently by as your most deeply held beliefs are being questioned in the public square. Speaking up is rarely easy when the world is actively waiting to discredit and misconstrue what you have to say — but we have Christ as
our model.”

She recalled her time at Liberty when she had the opportunity to go on a mission trip to Brazil. This experience helped open her eyes to the physical needs of others.

“In order for people to care about the message of God’s love, they first have to believe that you — the messenger — care about them. Human beings have not only spiritual needs, but practical and physical needs too,” Bream said.

She talked about some of the challenges she faced after switching from a law career to achieve her dream of working full time in television news.

During those times she said she learned to lean on the Lord and to trust in Him, in good times and bad. She found strength in the truth that God’s grace is sufficient, that His power is made perfect in weakness.

“There will be joyous successes and beautiful families. There will be challenges and times when your burdens feel unbearable,” she told the graduates. “But we know nothing is a surprise to the Lord. He has already woven a stunning tapestry of your life, but it’s one you’ll only get to experience a single thread at a time. It will require trust and patience and walking very close to Him. That is what we are called to do.”