Of all the questions Jessica Johnson answered on quizzes and exams throughout her college career, perhaps none was as important as the one that sprung up on her during West Virginia University’s Spring 2014 Commencement.
“Will you marry me?”
Commencement 2014 weekend (May 9-11) came with the usual pageantry – the pomp, the circumstance, the smiles, the handshakes, the hugs, the tears.
But it came with a little more oomph this year.
There were bowties. Selfies. “Country Roads.”
And a marriage proposal.
New graduates and their loved ones flocked to iconic settings on campus – Woodburn Circle and the Mountaineer statue – for final snapshots of their “home among the hills.” And all ceremonies ended with graduates and families swaying and singing WVU’s most beloved anthem, “Country Roads.”
It was all part of a magical weekend for 4,300 students who officially conquered college life and earned their degrees at WVU.
Next step: Conquering the real world.
Some graduates plan to do so hand-in-hand.
At the close of the School of Medicine ceremony Sunday morning, Johnson was invited on stage and presented with a bouquet of flowers hidden near the podium. Set to Adam Sandler’s “Grow Old With You,” a video slideshow of Johnson and classmate/boyfriend Ali Hajiran then played for a packed Morgantown Event Center.
At the end of the video, Hajiran got on his knee and popped the question.
Johnson could have fled in embarrassment.
But the ceremony came with a happy ending – she said, “Yes.”
Johnson, of Elkins, and Hajiran, of Wheeling, also received their doctorate of medicine degrees.
It marked a perfect crescendo for the couple who met during their first year of medical school at WVU. Hajiran and Johnson became friends at first, but grew closer on a spring break service trip in which they helped rebuild houses in New Orleans.
They then started running together to train for races. During those evening jogs, they discovered they shared many of the same interests, including literature, music, soccer, Pittsburgh pro sports, travel and, of course, medicine.
“Having a significant other who was also a medical student turned out to be quite a blessing,” Hajiran said. “We helped each other stay on track, taking turns to cook dinner, quizzing each other in the evenings, and going to church together on Sundays.
“I wanted to do something special for her that she would always remember. Commencement presented a once in a lifetime opportunity to share this special moment with all of our closest friends, family and mentors.”
The couple’s chapter as Mountaineers does not end yet.
They will continue their medical training at Ruby Memorial Hospital. She will begin a dual residency in Internal Medicine and Pediatrics in July. At the same time, he will start his residency training in urology, as part of the Department of Surgery.
March on, Mountaineers
Hajiran, Johnson and the entire Class of 2014 received plenty of direction for their future steps from guest speakers who’ve made a splash within their own niche – from a best-selling author to a well-known actor to a top financier.
The College of Business and Economics welcomed alumnus Bill Sheedy, executive vice president for VISA, to offer workplace advice to its newest batch of graduates.
“Work hard and be engaged; be considerate and respectful; be courageous; never stop asking questions; be excited about the job and the people you will learn from – not just the financial success; and trust your gut when making decisions,” Sheedy said.
At the College of Creative Arts ceremony, actor Chris Sarandon, best known for playing Prince Humperdink in “The Princess Bride,” shared how his undergraduate experience at WVU shaped his film career.
Sarandon, a Beckley native, told the tale of how four elective classes, including a beginning acting class, catapulted him into his future career.
“If you were as fortunate as I was to have a few lightning bolts – classes or college experiences – they’ll lead to a wider view of the world and your place in it,” he said.
“An artist is made up of everything he or she experiences,” he said. “Living the life of arts, you will, at times, be deeply discouraged. But stick with whatever you do, please.”
WVU alumna and former West Virginia First Lady Gayle Manchin addressed graduates of the College of Education and Human Services.
She, too, reflected on her previous life as a WVU student, noting that so much has changed on campus and in the world since her undergraduate days. She assured the the new graduates would someday feel the same sentiment.
Her advice: “Always remember to grow, adapt, develop and learn from the challenges, experiences and opportunities that lie ahead.”
As West Virginia Board of Education president and a former schoolteacher, Manchin referred to author Dr. Theodor Seuss Geisel’s last book, “Hooray for Diffendoofer Day!” and his message to “dare to be different” in the way you think and approach life.
‘You’re the author of your life story’
One of the most highlighted speakers of the weekend, Stephen P. Coonts, penned a novel, “Flight of the Intruder,” that spent 28 weeks on “The New York Times” bestseller list.
Coonts, also a U.S. Navy veteran, told graduates of WVU’s largest college, the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, that they, too, were authors, in a special sense.
“You’re the author of your life story,” he said. “You write a page in it every day.
Coonts, a 1968 Eberly graduate, was presented an honorary doctorate of letters. Fred Tattersall, who graduated with honors from the College of Business and Economics with a bachelor of science in finance in 1970, also received an honorary degree. Tattersall was a senior vice president of what is now Bank of America.
Both men expressed humility for the honorary awards.
Coonts said he was humbled and called WVU “one of the greatest universities in the United States and the crown jewel of West Virginia.”
Of this year’s 1,211 Eberly graduates, 55 percent were women and 25 percent graduated with honors. Ninety-one were international citizens from 32 nations.
Coonts also told them, “Live your life so that when you come to the end of your journey and look back, you can say with pride and satisfaction: ‘My life has been a great story and I wrote every chapter.’”
Learning from tragedy
Heather Abbott is one individual who could rely on help from a certain group of graduates – ones from the School of Medicine.
On April 15, 2013, Abbott enjoyed a beautiful day with friends at a Boston Red Sox game. Afterward, the group of friends decided to watch the runners cross the finish line at the Boston Marathon and grab dinner at a nearby restaurant.
“Before I knew it, I was catapulted from the outside through the windows of the restaurant,” Abbott recalled. “My foot was on fire.”
At Sunday’s School of Medicine ceremony for professional programs students, Abbott shared her traumatic story of the Boston Marathon bombings that killed three people and injured nearly 300 others.
“Life is full of adversity and setbacks—some that you can anticipate and some that you can’t. In my case, it was a bomb.”
In four days, Abbott underwent three surgeries on her left leg. The doctors could not save it, and had to amputate it.
As she grieved the loss of her lower leg, Abbott soon gained inspiration from family, friends, healthcare professionals and other amputees.
“I learned to walk with two crutches, then one, then a cane and finally on my new leg,” she said. “Within months after my surgery, I learned to paddle board on a new board sent to me after my accident.
“I now have four interchangeable legs, one made just for wearing a high-heeled shoe!”
Abbott offered graduates three lessons she learned through her experiences:
Recognize what you can’t change and accept it, accept the help and support of others, and seek opportunities to pay it forward.
Selfies and bow ties
In his first time presiding over WVU Commencement ceremonies in nearly three decades, President Gordon Gee shook hands, hugged graduates and let them take “selfies” with him throughout the weekend.
At the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design ceremony, at least three students paused by the podium, pulled out their cell phones and took selfies with undisputedly the most popular college president in America.
Gee even presented one new graduate, Dustin Blankenship, of the College of Law, with one of his own gold-and-blue bow ties to adorn during the ceremony.
And the hugs. He hugged every single graduate. These weren’t shy driveby hugs. These were arms-wide-open-from-two-feet-away hugs. It’s was if Gee gave Morgantown a massive bear hug over a three-day period.
One Davis graduate, though, was the aggressor picking Gee up off the stage as the crowd roared.
In his charge to graduates he used humor, but also turned serious.
Do not to wear flip-flops to a job interview, he urged them, and take time to enjoy the little things in life, keep in touch with old friends, remember to say “thank you” and smile, and to “always always remember your alma mater.”
He presided over five ceremonies, and offered the same sprinkling of life advice to each graduate. He assured their future was worthwhile.
“Keep in touch with your old friends,” he said. “It is easier than ever. But stop Snapchatting and Instagramming long enough to make new friends, too.
“I want you to know that we will remember you, we will cherish you, we will look forward to your adventures and your feats of strength and your works of art. I cannot wait to see where your journey takes you and how your West Virginia University education will help you change the world. It will, and you will make us all better.”
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