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Commencement 2017 filled with special moments for graduates

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For new graduates Vhuthuhawe Tintswalo Madzinge and Dwight Hernandez, their last semester at Liberty came with a double dose of excitement.

As members of LU Praise, Liberty’s gospel choir, they sang at the Washington National Cathedral for President Donald Trump’s Inaugural Prayer Service in January. Performing for the president is usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but the group was privileged with a repeat performance at Commencement, where they sang the same song, “We’ve Come This Far By Faith.”

But this time was especially meaningful. When they finished, Trump personally greeted the singers as he exited the stadium. He posed for a picture with the group and President Jerry Falwell.

Originally from South Africa, Madzinge said that as an international student, it was a tremendous honor to sing for Trump.

“I didn’t realize it was a big deal until I was standing right at the Inaugural Prayer Service,” Madzinge said. “Now, to be from South Africa and sing for the President of the United States, it was profound. I can’t even find the words to describe what the opportunity is like.”

Madzinge, who earned her bachelor’s degree in biomedical sciences, said that when Trump came off the stage, she was shocked. While her family was unable to fly in for the ceremony, Madzinge still felt loved and supported.

“I motioned for him to come up to me,” she said. “Even President Falwell came down and said, ‘Where’s my friend from South Africa?’ He remembered me and congratulated me on graduation. It was amazing.”

Hernandez, a music graduate, said he has sung with LU Praise since his freshmen year at Liberty. Singing for a sitting U.S. president, he said, is a moment he will never forget.

“It’s great to see how God leaves His mark on things,” Hernandez said.  “I couldn’t ask for a better way to close out my bachelor’s degree.”

Trump also recognized another group of students in a special way. He commended the more than 6,000 military graduates, including military spouses, who were receiving their degrees. More than 1,600 participated in Commencement, with many of them relishing the chance to hear directly from their Commander in Chief.

U.S. Army officer Benjamin Solem, who was commissioned in a special ceremony on Friday morning, led the more than 50,000 people in attendance at Commencement in the Pledge of Allegiance. Afterward, Trump came up to Solem and shook his hand.

“To be a newly commissioned officer for only 24 hours and be able to shake the hand of the president is a great honor,” he said. “I think I speak for all military personnel, whether they’ve been serving for a day or years, that it’s a huge honor for the president to speak at Commencement, and I think (Trump) brought it.”

Trump asked all the members of the military and those with military ties to stand as he recognized and honored their sacrifice during his speech.

For all graduates, Commencement was not only a time to celebrate, but to reflect on their time at Liberty.

Earlier Saturday morning, as the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains peeked through the sheet of fog in the distance just before sunrise, Hannah Phillips danced across the soccer field, where the graduates waited for their processional. She dragged four friends along to get a picture with Sparky, the Flames’ mascot. The excitement and pride she felt about earning her Bachelor of Science in Nursing shined brighter than the yellow stethoscope she wore around her neck, accessorizing her regalia.

Hannah Phillips (second from the left) poses with her friends before Commencement.

“I did it; it’s crazy. There were times when I didn’t feel like I’d make it,” she said. One of her friends responded: “You did.”

“This is the year,” mused Phillips, who arrived on campus at 4:48 a.m. to beat the security lines. “I’ve been looking forward to 2017 since I started (at Liberty). It is so awesome.”

Emily Stotmeister, who studied digital media, was glad to be in the company of friends who have been with her since the beginning.

“We’ve grown up into adulthood together,” she said. “We all met freshman year. It feels like it took forever, but it went so fast at the same time. It went by in the blink of an eye.”

“We all had hard times,” Phillips interjected. “But to have people come up behind you, spur you on … it’s been a crazy ride, lots of unexpected turns. It was like a roller coaster. You get off at the end and you’re like ‘that was great’ but you were terrified in the middle of it.”

“I wouldn’t trade any experience I had here,” Stotmeister added.

Having the sitting president of the United States as the keynote speaker added even more prestige to an already significant moment.

“He is at our graduation,” Stotmeister said.

Strategic communication graduate Wesley Fouse said that, “Whether you agree with him or not, having the president here, that is pretty awesome.”

He and a group of friends were discussing what got them through their education. “The Lord,” they all said, almost in unison, as well as things that they will miss about campus life: the professors, the events — football games, Coffeehouse.

“Dorm life was a big part of my experience,” said Hunter “Texas” Bowen, who studied religion and served as a resident assistant. “Living on a hall, leading a hall, I’ve loved it, every second of it. Well, most seconds of it.”

The group laughed as Bowen continued: “Being here at Williams Stadium — we started with the freshman kickoff, and now it’s literally coming full circle,” Bowen said. “It is (a moment) four years in the making.”

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