A New Chapter

May 31, 2016

Graduates challenged to inspire others with their stories

As 19,430 graduates were honored at Liberty University’s 43rd Commencement on May 14, each brought with them their own story of persevering through trials to reach success. So it was only fitting that the event included a number of celebrities and accomplished figures known for inspiring others with stories.

Hollywood writer/director Randall Wallace (“Braveheart,” “We Were Soldiers,” “Secretariat,” “Heaven is for Real”) told the graduates that “stories make us who we are.” Wallace, who grew up in Lynchburg, spoke briefly to the graduates about a local war hero whose story is being made into a film by Mel Gibson. He then surprised the crowd by inviting Gibson to the stage. Gibson was  inspired by the life of Desmond T. Doss, a World War II medic who became the first conscientious objector in American history to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The film, “Hacksaw Ridge,” is written in part by Wallace. Gibson then had a surprise of his own, inviting Vince Vaughn, one of the film’s stars, to the stage.

These celebrity guests challenged the Class of 2016 — the largest graduating class in Liberty’s history — to use their own stories to inspire others. All three spoke about the power of Doss’ story and how impressed they were with Liberty during their time on campus.

Liberty President Jerry Falwell mentioned that Gibson had spoken about his goal to make a sequel to one of the most iconic Christian films ever made, “The Passion of the Christ,” three years ago when Gibson invited the Falwells to his home for dinner in Malibu. The sequel would be about the resurrection of Christ. Gibson agreed to attend Liberty’s Commencement when President Falwell invited him a little over a month before. Gibson later decided to bring Wallace and Vaughn with him to Liberty. Wallace became a close friend of Falwell and his wife, Becki, after delivering the keynote address at Liberty’s 2011 Commencement ceremony.

Another celebrity guest making a surprise appearance was “Duck Dynasty’s” Willie Robertson, who charged the crowd to live out an infectious, positive attitude that reflects Christ. Robertson’s son John Luke and daughter-in-law Mary Kate just completed their freshman year at Liberty.

All of this preamble — exciting in its own right — was capped by a memorable, entertaining speech by New York Giants running back Rashad Jennings (’09), a former Liberty Flames standout player.

Last year, Liberty was listed among “The 20 Schools with the Coolest Graduation Speakers of 2015” by lifestyle blogger Veronica Ruckh when former Governor Jeb Bush took the Commencement podium.

Considering the volume of star power on Liberty’s stage this year, it is no surprise that Liberty’s 2016 Commencement created buzz on the web and on social media as well.

An article by Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service declared that, “The sleepy town of Lynchburg, Virginia, looked more like Hollywood … thanks to Liberty University, America’s largest evangelical college” and the talent gathered on the Commencement stage.

“Liberty has been drawing political power brokers into its orbit for decades,” Merritt pointed out, noting that President Falwell is continuing his father’s legacy as the university grows in influence and prominence. “The 2016 Commencement shows it can attract A-list Hollywood actors, television personalities, and sports stars, too. The ability to leverage influencers from both the entertainment and political sectors is impressive.”

Before the creative forces behind “Hacksaw Ridge” highlighted Doss’ legacy at Commencement, President Falwell used part of his address to the graduates to honor another local war hero, World War II veteran and former prisoner of war George Rogers. Rogers served as the university’s chief financial officer from 1974-99.

Falwell also recognized veteran Gene Falwell, his uncle and the twin brother of Liberty’s founder Dr. Jerry Falwell, as well as Purple Heart veteran Tim Lee, who spoke at Liberty’s Baccalaureate Service the night before.

Rashad Jennings came full circle to deliver the keynote address at his alma mater — in the very stadium where he holds the record for most touchdowns. At 31, Jennings is the university’s youngest Commencement speaker in history. Seven years earlier, Jennings celebrated his own Commencement after being drafted into the National Football League.

During each of his three seasons in a Flames jersey, Jennings rushed for 1,000-plus yards, and he scored a total 42 touchdowns while leading the Flames to two Big South Conference Championships and a combined conference record of 11-2. His professional career has included stops in Jacksonville, Oakland, and, currently, New York, where he is a starter and most recently rushed for 863 of his over 3,000 career yards.

Throughout his rise to success, Jennings has focused on giving back. His nonprofit organization, the Rashad Jennings Foundation, provides mentoring and promotes literacy, health, and wellness to youth.

Jennings’ speech was inspiring — and fiery, in a way — as pyrotechnics (normally used to celebrate at Flames Football games) illustrated his desire for graduates to live a life of “dynamic faith” and burn away the frivolous distractions and moral compromises that seek to snuff out their light.

“Throughout life, you will be tested to walk with biblical truth, tested to have patience with Christ-like tolerance, and tested with temptation to hold your spiritual fortitude and your convictions, remembering that it is by and for a Holy God that you stand or fall,” he told the graduates. “And He is able to make you stand.”

Jennings, who double-majored in business and sport management at Liberty, with a minor in biblical studies, told them that God delights in doing extraordinary things with ordinary people. He talked about how he had been inspired by Dr. Falwell, who envisioned Liberty as a world-class university in both its academic and athletic offerings. Today, Liberty is the world’s largest Christian university and is growing in prominence (read about its reclassification as a Doctoral University). But building such a university is not without cost, and Jennings said that achieving greatness does not come without ambition.

“I’m not supposed to be here, by any stretch of the imagination. Being a little short kid, overweight, 0.6 GPA in high school, 275-pound fifth-string running back — with asthma,” Jennings said. “But one thing I know for sure. When God has your back, you can dream crazy big.

Trials may burn, he said, but those who persevere are refined by those flames.

“Go set this world on fire,” Jennings said, before stepping down from the stage and launching an autographed football into the sea of graduates. He closed with his signature touchdown celebration dance of drawing a box in the air and stepping through it — a symbol to graduates of their stepping forth into the world as Champions for Christ.

43rd Commencement

19,430 record number of graduates

87 percent studied online

More than 35,000 attended the ceremonies

5,803 Military Ties (Veterans, active duty, & military spouses)

549 Doctoral Degrees

8,364 Master’s Degrees

8,464 Bachelor’s Degrees

5,167 graduated with honors

1,143 with a perfect 4.0 GPA

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