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Commencement 2015 celebration begins with graduate reception

See more photos from Friday’s events on Liberty’s Facebook page.

Before the formal exercises of Liberty University’s 42nd Commencement got underway, thousands of graduates, along with their families and guests, enjoyed a kick-off celebration to their special weekend during the carnival-like graduate reception Friday afternoon at Williams Stadium.

The sun shining overhead was as warm as the atmosphere — guests enjoyed ice cold drinks, kettle corn, cotton candy, roasted peanuts, cake, and ice cream while snapping pictures in a handful of photo booth setups across the concourse. Props were available for some goofy snapshots and Sparky, Liberty’s mascot, posed with guests.

The reception was opened in prayer after an introduction by Chris Johnson, executive vice president for Enrollment Management, and a word of encouragement from Dr. Ron Hawkins, Liberty’s provost and vice president for Academic Affairs.

Hawkins noted how diverse the graduating class is, representing states across the country and nations around the world. The top states represented at this year’s Commencement are Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, California, Ohio, and Maryland. The top countries represented (after the U.S.) are Canada, Korea, Nigeria, Japan, China, Germany, Ghana, and the United Kingdom.

Though there are more than 17,500 who will be awarded degrees, Hawkins pointed out the value of each individual.

“We are grateful to God for every person that those big numbers represent,” Hawkins said. “Because we have a calling at Liberty — to train Champions for Christ … to go out and impact the contemporary culture for the glory of God and for the good of our nation and for our world.”

As he offered the first formal congratulations to the graduates (of many more sure to be extended throughout the weekend’s events), Hawkins told the graduating class, “Every one of you is important, and every one of you has your own story.”

Faces across the concourse reflected the various narratives: graduates, reveling in their accomplishments as they engaged in gleeful chatter with their classmates; parents beaming with pride as their children excitedly introduced them to the campus they called home for four years; and online graduates, who make up 86 percent of the Class of 2015, wide eyed as they saw their college campus for the first time.

Among the newcomers to campus was Nekoda Harris, who only moments before had arrived at Liberty for the first time. As a working professional in Atlanta, she enjoyed the convenience Liberty afforded her in pursuing, and ultimately earning, her master’s degree in human resources.

“Going to Liberty was probably the best decision I ever made,” Harris said. “I appreciated the Christian influence, it is encouraging. It keeps you grounded in both your personal walk and professionally.”

She added that Liberty’s campus is “beautiful,” she especially appreciates the way the architecture is complementary throughout. Harris said that she intends to spend the day exploring campus further.

Faculty and deans from Liberty’s various schools and colleges joined the reception to interact with the guests.

This gave the online graduates, like Timothy Price of St. Louis, the opportunity to interact with some of their professors in person for the first time.

Price, who earned a bachelor’s degree in religion, said that while his professors — like Dr. Rodney Whaley, assistant professor of worship studies who he had just met — were very engaging and made the online education experience very personal, he enjoyed the opportunity to greet them face-to-face.

“I had seen Whaley on video lectures … he gave me so much online, he was very connected, very personal, I appreciated that,” Price said. “To shake his hand and meet him in person, and to thank him for the encouragement, it was great. I am really enjoying myself.”

As a full-time worship leader, with 30 years of ministry experience, going to college almost felt impossible to Price. But Liberty made it possible, and now Price is considering pursuing a master’s degree. It was because this moment was so meaningful to Price, as it is for so many, that he made the cross-country trip. Though he had seen campus in pictures, taking in the real thing was a completely different experience.

“To actually see campus? It is amazing,” he said. “I am enjoying being here. Liberty makes me feel important; more than just one of 17,000.”

Friday’s events continue with the Baccalaureate service at 6 p.m. in the Vines Center. O.S. Hawkins is the keynote speaker. Following is the Military Graduate Recognition Ceremony at 7:30 p.m. The Commencement ceremony, with keynote speaker Jeb Bush, begins at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 9, in Williams Stadium.