Diary of a Mountaineer: 2013 Commencement

A Mountaineer remembrance of WVU's 144th Commencement: hugs, tears, laughs and mortarboards

Dear Diary:

Well, Mountaineer friends, we made it through another year.

Cameras flashed. Eyes watered. The hugs, well, they felt longer, tighter.

We sent our newest batch of West Virginia University graduates – more than 4,000 of them – out with a bang and into the real world (except for those who decided to hang around for some more schooling).

A lot happened over the weekend marking WVU’s 144th Commencement. It’s our version of the Super Bowl, or Wrestlemania. Heck, the grandeur and some of the creatively designed caps we saw would be a good fit for professional wrestling.

Instead, this occasion marked a time to love, reflect and hope.

Click here to read about some of the members of the Class of 2013, and the moments that changed their lives.

A collection of brilliant minds from across many disciplines – from accounting to world languages – and of all colors, creeds, faiths and backgrounds came together as only Mountaineers do.

They each followed a similar path – one that took them about 24,000 hours to complete.

It is only fitting to capture some of the special moments from the weekend in this diary of a Mountaineer.

Every dog has its day … even when it comes to graduating

Elkie calmly walked across the stage at Honors Convocation as the second graduate to be recognized Friday (May 17) night.

Honors College Dean Keith Garbutt placed a yellow Honors cord around her neck. Then he did something he normally doesn’t do to students.


He patted and rubbed her head.

Elkie didn’t seem to mind. After all, she is a golden retriever.

A dog receiving a degree and ceremonial cord?

Cue a collective ‘awwwwwwww’ from the audience.

Nothing could be cuter.

Why in the world did a four-legged creature get a degree? Well, in a sense, Elkie was a student.

It was the idea of Brittany Szafran, a double-major in animal and nutritional sciences and biochemistry with a minor in Japanese studies. As a freshman, Szafran joined the University’s service dog program that teaches students how to train service dogs. At the same time, Elkie joined the program.

“These dogs attend classes five days a week, so why not have them graduate, too?” Szafran said.

So she escorted Elkie to the convocation, and like a good dog, she rested at Szafran’s feet without a peep through the hour-long event. The only kind of degree that would’ve captured her attention would’ve been Pedigree.

You can view each of the commencement ceremonies by going here on YouTube.

This summer Elkie will be placed with a local resident who suffered a stroke and is now in a wheelchair.

As for Szafran, of Moundsville, she’ll start veterinary school at Mississippi State University and work toward a Ph.D. Sounds like a doggone good plan.

Love, WVU style

Reach for your defibrillator, because a diary wouldn’t be a diary without a heart-jolting love story.

On Sunday morning, Grant Morris and Alison Spiker lined up with the other students awaiting their medical degrees at the School of Medicine ceremony.

They didn’t get to stand in line side-by-side, though you could probably see little cartoon hearts pop up next to them as they traded starry-eyed gazes.

Married Med Grads

Morris and Spiker are married – united through God, medicine and being Mountaineers.

They first met as undergrads here. Morris, of Morgantown, stuck around after high school to study psychology at WVU. Spiker, of Ripley, came here to study biology and serve as a multi-year captain for the women’s cross country team.

Most women might envy Spiker’s skills of running, which can come in handy when approached by a wooing suitor. But Spiker didn’t run away.

They struck up a friendship through a college ministry and after two years, that friendship turned into something more.

Both decided to pursue med school at WVU and on one particular night of studying together, Morris had a question for Spiker.

“I found a ring for $70 that had scripture on it from the book of Ruth,” he said. “In Hebrew, it said, ‘Wherever you go, I will follow.’ It’s a symbol of our commitment together.”

Spiker didn’t pick up on the fact that Morris was down on one knee. As soon as he started quoting scripture, she knew something was going on.

“I was, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s quoting scripture. That is really interesting.’ Then it clicked,” she said.

The couple went running to the altar. Morris had morphed into a runner himself, often joining Spiker on those 5 a.m. runs. I’d still bet my money on Spiker.

“Med school is challenging,” Morris said. “To have your wife and best friend beside you in the trenches at the same time … I wouldn’t have made it without her. I couldn’t wait to hear her name called and watch her cross the stage and get hooded. I was next to her when she was putting in countless hours and late nights. Now it’s our big day of officially becoming physicians.”

Spiker said, “I wouldn’t have made it, either. God has been a big part of our life from the beginning, and we are both lucky to be in love with our best friend.”

And we are lucky to have both of them as new doctors representing the gold and blue.

Believe in Darwin

“Where are we supposed to go?” football safety Darwin Cook asked passersby within earshot as he entered the Coliseum concourse on Sunday.

If you ask Cook about his grandest achievement at WVU, the answer might surprise you.

No. It’s not the Orange Bowl play. You know. The one where he snatched up a fumble and returned it for a 99-yard touchdown before he plowed over Obie the Orange Bowl mascot in the end zone.

The whole world laughed … until we found out that a young woman was in that costume.

Cook and Obie made up and hugged after the game. Remember what I said, when in doubt, hug it out.

Instead, Cook’s greatest moment came Sunday when we walked at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences Commencement.

Believe in Darwin

Yes, originally bewildered by the sea of caps and gowns upon entering the venue, Cook eventually found out where he was supposed to go.

As he has, so far, in life.

And he’s not saying getting his degree is awesome because it’s the right thing to say as a student-athlete. For someone who had a 0.33 grade point average in high school, earning a college degree really means something.

You heard right. He had a 0.33 GPA.

Cook, a Cleveland native, was ruled ineligible for his second year of high school football after recording the disastrous academic average.

“I’ve never been a dumb kid,” Cook said bluntly. “Just lazy.”

He took his mother’s advice and prayed about it. And hitting the books fueled his passion to get back on the gridiron. Because “the only way to play football again was to get my GPA up.”

Cook turned his life around and made it back onto his high school team as a junior.

And on Sunday, donning a cap adorned with a bear (his elementary school mascot), a cardinal (his high school mascot) and a Mountaineer (no explanation needed), Cook earned his bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary studies.

“I didn’t even know how to act,” he said after the ceremony. “I tried hard not to shed a couple tears with my mom.”

Thankfully for us, Sunday’s not the last time we’ll see Cook. He’ll be back on the field this fall for the Mountaineers. And with the encouragement of WVU alum/former NFL star Darryl Talley, Cook might take a few business classes next semester.

He has a business plan – though he’s tight-lipped about what that plan entails.

As we saw in the NFL Draft a few weeks ago, nothing is guaranteed. Therefore, Cook says he has three or four backup plans if he doesn’t make it to the big leagues.

“You never know what the future holds, so I try to prepare myself. I’m prepared for the world and I can handle it like the man I’m supposed to be.”

Women in government? A 99-year-old receiving a degree? Holt blazed trails

A brunette in aviators and a blue graduation gown held a man’s arm with one hand and a bouquet of pink flowers in the other as she walked down the path from the Creative Arts Center to the parking lot.

She couldn’t know that in a room above her a historic conversation was taking place.

Helen Holt

In one seat was Helen Holt, the first woman to serve in West Virginia’s executive branch as Secretary of State. Across from her was Natalie Tennant, WVU’s first female Mountaineer Mascot and the current West Virginia Secretary of State.

“Finally, people are hearing all the good that you’ve done,” Tennant told Holt, who is three months away from turning 100.

Holt was about to receive an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences. She was one of five extraordinary individuals to receive honorary degrees this weekend.

Tennant held a Canon HD camera with the record button pressed as she asked Holt what it was like to work in the Capitol as a single mother of three young children. Holt had been appointed Secretary of State after succeeding her husband in the state House of Delegates following his early death.

“I knew I had to have a job, and I knew I had to do it well,” Holt answered.

She used technology to keep up with her responsibilities to her children and the state that adopted her. She was the first to use a speakerphone to make calls at the Capitol in the 1950s. She also strived to be less a figurehead and more a worker for the state’s welfare. Previous secretaries hadn’t signed their own names to documents. Holt said she could, and would, do it herself.

Tennant, as a former Mountaineer and state official, could have many feelings at commencement about her school, about her state.

But this day, they were all for Holt.

Tennant wants the hundreds of people who scanned the program at Commencement to know Holt’s story, to see what she gave this nation.

Holt, who lives in Washington, D.C. and winters in Florida, was appointed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to lead a program that would increase the safety and efficiency of nursing homes in the nation. Her mortgage insurance program through the Federal Housing Administration, and later the Department of Housing and Urban Development, established nationally high standards in the care of the elderly. By the time she was reappointed to the position by six more presidents, she had overseen construction of 1,000 modern long-term healthcare facilities with more than 100,000 beds.

As she stood to speak a few words following the receipt of her honorary doctorate earlier in the day, she held onto her son, U.S. Rep. Rush D. Holt Jr. (D-N.J.), and WVU President Jim Clements.

Holt grew up in Illinois, and she knows it can take a long time to become a West Virginian. For her, the WVU honorary degree was the last step.

“Now I feel I really belong,” she told the crowd. “Thank you.”

Mountaineers are everywhere

Who says you have to be from West Virginia to be a Mountaineer? Or even go to school here?

Helen Holt just showed you what it took to be a Mountaineer.

In the Mountaineer club, we’re inclusive.

For Nagasree Garapati, a chemical engineering doctoral graduate from India, Thursday’s International Graduates Reception marked the first time her parents had traveled to the U.S.

“I’m excited and happy to share my WVU home with my parents and to introduce them to West Virginia,” she said.

They don’t speak English and traveled 19 hours across the world to be here for her special day.

“They are now Mountaineers,” said Garapati, who plans to do postdoctoral work at the University of Minnesota.

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At Saturday’s engineering ceremony, Butti Jassem Albutti, a major in the Kuwaiti National Guard, accepted his master’s in safety management while Nourdin Basher Al Sherif from Libya, was hooded with a doctorate in computer engineering.

Both plan to return to their home countries, but say they share a love for “this beautiful city, state and University” they have called home for several years.

Those are just a few examples.

Eberly Dean Robert Jones noted that this year’s graduates represented 43 nations in his school. The youngest is 20. The oldest is 66.

Goes to show you, you can hail from anywhere across the globe and we’ll welcome you to WVU’s country roads with open arms.

Hugs and hashtags, in the name of journalism

“What’s with all the hugs?” Dean Maryanne Reed said after almost everyone crossing the stage during the P.I. Reed School of Journalism Commencement hugged someone. “We had a ‘no hugging rule’ a couple of years ago, but no more!”

Googler plus

When in doubt, hug it out.

It was so cool when Google’s Richard Gingras told the journalism students to “warm up those hashtags.” And boy did they—Twitter was filled with activity from the grads.

On Sunday, #WVUgrad was trending on Twitter for the Pittsburgh area

Click here to view the Storify of social media posts from Commencement Weekend.

It’s like Gingras said, “We’re all journalists … we’re all publishers.”

And he encouraged folks to “take risks … make mistakes … it’s OK.” Boy I needed to hear that!

And ya’ know it was reassuring to hear him say, “The future of journalism and the future of media will be better than it was in the past.” I sure hope so.

Gingras then talked about discardable computers—too bad he didn’t bring some Google Glass!

Assistant Provost Elizabeth Dooley was encouraging, too. “You are well-prepared to succeed in the 21st Century mass communication environment,” she said, urging the grads to “maintain your devotion to truth and hold yourselves to the highest possible ethical standards.”

And we ended with Dean Reed’s advice to “use your head but learn to listen to your heart.”


When Sushana Samantha Williams’ name was called at the Eberly College ceremony for master’s and doctoral students, she walked onstage and threw confetti into the air.

When Michael Morris was called onstage, his friends shouted “Lookin’ good!”

And when Charles Swager walked onstage, one small voice rose from the front of the theater, saying “Daddy! Daddy!”

The voice continued to sound as Swager walked across the stage, received his hood, shook hands, walked down the steps and traveled across the theater to his seat.

“Daddy! Daddy! Daddy!” the voice continued.

And when the blond-headed boy was shushed and Daddy was seated, he still squirmed with the excitement of a cheering section.

What was happening to 3-year-old William’s father?

“He got stuff around his neck,” he said.

He knew that Daddy studied and went to school a lot, and the end result? His dad would be a social worker.

Most of us don’t get where we’re at without family. There was plenty of truth to that this weekend.

A night earlier at the College of Business and Economics ceremony, no fewer than 17 family members traveled to Morgantown from Northern Virginia for Joseph “Jay” Young’s graduation. Hopefully, they took more than one vehicle.


The business management major got some of the loudest cheers of the evening as the 2013 College of Business and Economics graduates crossed the stage.

Friday’s School of Public Health ceremony saw an inaugural class of 35 students receive their degrees, including Amy Hunter, of Philadelphia, whose two young daughters were in attendance along with her husband and several family members.

“I am so honored and humbled to be a part of this first class of graduates, especially because of all the community service we represent during this land-grant celebration year,” she said. Hunter will go on from here to obtain her Ph.D in public health at WVU.

“I’m a Mountaineer all the way now,” she said. “And I’m so glad my girls are here to see their mommy’s big day. I want them to know they can do anything they set their mind to.”

Provost Gaga

At least one speech over the weekend referenced Lady Gaga, Harry Potter and Pokemon cards.

That speech belonged to Provost Michele Wheatly, who got to share a moment with the rest of the proud parents in attendance at Friday’s Honors Convocation.

Her son, Stanley Smith, graduated with a degree in accounting. And they embraced on stage for the second ‘awwww’ moment of the night (the first being the golden retriever getting a degree).

An official and family moment

“Not only am I proud as punch as provost but I’m beaming with pride because I have a child in this graduating class sitting out in the audience thinking, ‘Oh no, what will my mother say next?’”

Smith was named an Outstanding Senior this year and is president of Beta Alpha Psi, the financial information student honorary, and social chair of Mortar Board.

Wheatly expressed to the crowd that she, too, has experienced the hardships and tribulations of doing what’s best for her children. She opened up to the audience about walking out of labor and delivery with her husband without a baby, and coming back a week later to pick their son up from intensive care.

“We provided all the supports they needed,” she told parents. “Let’s go back to elementary school. For all the parents, how many of you tolerated your child having obsessions and collections of really weird stuff? Fossils? Dinosaurs? Pokemon cards?

“I didn’t understand them (Pokemon cards) but part of me realized that the skill my child was developing would pay off one day.”

The provost then continued the memory lane trip to middle school. That’s an era when she admitted to staying up late and taking her child to Barnes and Noble launch parties for new Harry Potter books.

And then there was high school.

“How many were subjected to listening to hours of Lady Gaga music?” Wheatly asked the parents.

Then she led the graduating Honors students into giving a thunderous applause to those who helped get them there.


Both the law school and med school have this cool tradition that permits a family member who is an alumni or a lawyer or doctor to “hood” the new graduate, and there were plenty of fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and spouses in line to do so at the College of Law.

But there was only one grandfather, Joshua A. Gompers, who graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1948. When he was introduced to “hood” his granddaughter, Maggie Lee Gompers, the crowd went wild. It was a special moment in a bunch of special ones.

It was funny, too, when Class President Jon Storage likened what the class had been through to the physical condition of the school, which is undergoing a major renovation. “Like our school’s transformation, we have undergone a deep and fundamental transformation,” he said.

Law School Alumni President Andy Richardson reminded us of the reach of the Flying WV. “As you travel the world, wear your Flying WV with pride,” he said. “I’ve seen the Flying WV in Prague; Paris; St. Johns; Maui; Eastport, Maine; and San Antonio, Texas. There’s no better identifier of the state of West Virginia and particularly West Virginia University.

“When people ask you where you learned to succeed,” he said, “just say, ‘I’m a Mountaineer!’”

Jay Chattaway

It’s connections that matter

Jay Chattaway, the Emmy-winning composer of Star Trek music who recently donated his work to the College of Creative Arts, reminded us just how important those connections we make are.

He recounted how as a high school student in Pennsylvania, his music teacher — a WVU grad — got him an audition at WVU, and when he got accepted, he was awarded a Board of Governors Scholarship.

“I don’t know what I would have done without that scholarship,” he said, “but it wouldn’t be music.” And that would have been a shame.

He went on to catalog all the times in his career when a seemingly small event became a great opportunity, including how a one-time chance to compose for Star Trek-The Next Generation led to a 16-year, award-winning association with the show.

“Yes, I had skills, but if I hadn’t had connections, I wouldn’t have succeeded,” he said.

And he reminded us again of the importance of our WVU connections: “It’s the best employment agency that exists.”

Mortarboard Art

And it was the connections that enabled Chattaway to go where no WVU grad has gone before.

What’s on your mortarboard?

One of the more interesting activities for a Commencement goer is scanning over the caps of the creatively fine-tuned graduates.

From bedazzled “Flying WVs” to Dr. Seuss book titles like “Oh, the Places You Will Go,” WVU’s newest Mountaineer alumni from the College of Education and Human Services might have had the most creative mortarboards out of the 17 University ceremonies.

But the mortarboards from the big Eberly event deserve props, too.

Here are some that stood out: “This one’s for you, grandpa,” “I love WVU” and one painted like the Maryland state flag.

Shake it up

Dean Dana Brooks had already shaken the hand of every one of the hundred or so graduates at the commencement ceremony for the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.

As the organ began to play again as the crowd left the last ceremony of the last day of WVU’s commencement, he shook their hands again. And their parents’ hands and their grandparents’ hands.

It’s one of his favorite days of the year.


“I hope you enjoyed the program.”

“Stay in touch now.”

“We’re all Mountaineers here.”

One woman tells him, “I love your enthusiasm.”

Another says that this is the best college in the University.

And when the last person left the auditorium, he told his secret to shaking hands all day and never tiring.

“If you love what you’re doing, you don’t even notice,” he said. “All you have to do is look in the eyes of the students.”

Those eyes light up. There’s talk of pride, enthusiasm, the second home of college.

The man who’s been dean of the college for nearly 20 years said, “you can’t beat that.”

“Everything is so positive about this day,” he said. “That’s why I love it.”


Parting words

Everyone has some sort of advice this time every year. Graduates are showered with so much advice, it could last them through their lifetime, and I’m sure down the road, they’ll have words of wisdom to share, also.

William Sigmund, WVU alumni and senior vice president of medical affairs North America for GlaxoSmithKline, told new School of Medicine graduates to “Stick to your Mountaineer values –honesty and integrity. And always search for truth, even in the face of what may seem like inconsequential choices.”

Vicente Anido, who was awarded an honorary degree for his work as a highly respected ophthalmology industry veteran, expressed to School of Pharmacy graduates that work really isn’t the most important thing in the world.

“Always think about your family, put them first,” he said. “No one has ever regretted spending more time with their family, and regardless of what you choose in life, don’t ever, ever forget it, because no matter what happens, they will always be there for you.”

Energy industry executive Jed DiPaolo who received an honorary doctorate of science from his alma mater offered this advice: “Have passion for what you do, lead a good life and make this world a better place. A meaningful life is measured by human energy.”

Penni Roll, CFO of a major New York capital investment firm, urged business graduates to be “human sponges” and that the journey of life “has always been fulfilling even when it was not easy.”

And to top off the theme of making mistakes is OK – another honorary doctorate, Jennie Hunter-Cevera, a scientist who holds a whopping 15 patents, told Eberly graduates that “failure is part of the formula for success.”

This is the book of life, as written by WVU’s most successful alums and forwarded onto the 4,000-plus graduates of 2013.

Now it’s time for them to add to that book, and to step out of their intro to reality.

Those 24,000 hours it took to obtain their degree will seem like seconds compared to what’s to come.

By Jake Stump
University Relations/News



CONTACT: University Relations/News

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