Some, like Marc Besch, came from afar. Others, like Joy Wang, from just down the road.
But all of the nearly 4,500 members of West Virginia University’s Class of 2016 who crossed paths in Morgantown are united by a journey that culminated this Commencement weekend (May 13-15) in 17 ceremonies that catapulted them to their next adventure, wherever it may be.
As Kenova, West Virginia, native Brad Smith, CEO of Intuit who received a Presidential Honorary Doctor of Business Degree Saturday at the College of Business and Economics Commencement, put it: “I have lived in 10 states across the country, but I promise you I never left (West Virginia) in my heart or in my mind.
“I get a chance to work with people from every university you could name. You are graduating from a leading edge university with a reputation around the world. (Mountaineers) plan to blaze trails rather than follow paths.”
Trailblazers like Marc Besch.
The name may not ring a bell, but you may be familiar with his work. Besch was part of the WVU research team that uncovered the Volkswagen emission cheating scandal that made international headlines.
On Saturday, Besch earned his Ph.D. in mechanical engineering – an educational culmination for the Switzerland native that was eight-and-a-half years in the making.
It was Aug. 1, 2007 when Besch arrived at WVU to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering.
“I remember the first days to be hot and very humid,” he said. “I wasn’t used to the high humidity we have here from back home, and experiencing more than 90 percent humidity while walking down High Street was a ‘challenge.’
“The most memorable thing from my first days on campus was the kindness of people. Nobody hesitated to help me or guide me through the jungle of higher education and a University system that was slightly different from what I was used to from home.”
Besch intended to earn his master’s degree in two years and return to Europe. That plan, as many plans do, veered off track. Mridul Gautam, a WVU engineering professor at the time, convinced Besch to switch to a direct-track Ph.D. program. Besch also got involved with WVU’s Center for Alternative Fuels, Engines and Emissions, or CAFEE, which really kicked his research ventures into high gear. Because of the range of projects undertaken by CAFEE, Besch’s graduation got delayed over the years. But it’s a tradeoff Besch has welcomed with open arms.
“I would have never dreamed that a small budget study we carried out as Ph.D. students two years earlier would ever turn into a story that fills the front pages of newspapers around the globe,” Besch said about CAFEE’s Volkswagen research. “It certainly emphasizes my belief that whatever you do, do it right and pay attention to details because one can never foresee if it could become part of a game changing event down the road.”
Following graduation, Besch will continue working as a research associate on CAFEE projects. He insists that, much like his plan to earn a master’s degree in two years and return to Europe, the only thing for sure about the future is nothing’s for sure.
Joy to the world
Another Class of 2016 member, Joy Wang, also knows that the road to one’s goals and dreams aren’t cemented in a linear path.
Wang, an Honors College student and WVU Foundation scholar, not only graduated this weekend but served as the keynote speaker for her own ceremony at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate commencement.
When Wang first came to WVU in 2012, she envisioned going to medical school after her undergraduate studies to study Alzheimer’s. While she still plans to attend medical school, her journey will take a detour first as she heads to northern Europe as a graduate student at the Estonian Life Sciences University’s vet school.
“When I first gave this idea some thought and then committed to the program, it scared the heck out of me,” Wang said. “Even right now, I’m still excitedly scared, I mean I don’t even know how to say ‘hello’ in Estonian.”
Over the last four years, Wang has gained solid footing through opportunities at WVU for her future. Through the Global Medical Brigades organization, she has led medical mission trips to Panama and Nicaragua where more than 1,000 patients were treated and three public health project builds were completed.
The social impact of WVU, however, left just a bigger impression. To prepare for her commencement speech, Wang read several speeches and even attended Friday’s ceremony for the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design.
“The feeling and thought that struck me most, especially with my arms around my fellow graduates as we held back tears and sang ‘Country Roads’ together one last time, was that even though it may seem like our undergraduate years at WVU are ending, every end has a beginning,” Wang said.
“With this, it seems appropriate that when we began as freshmen, we also put our arms around each other here in the Coliseum during Welcome Week and sang ‘Country Roads’ together for the first time. Not to seem cheesy, but I think that’s when our WVU family truly began, even if we didn’t realize it at the time.”
A high honor
Commencement weekend didn’t just honor the University’s newest graduates. Four honorary degrees honoring a lifetime of achievements were among the diplomas presented.
In addition to Smith, the recipients were financial and legal services leader Rodgin Cohen, Presidential Honorary Doctor of Laws, College of Law American space pioneer Katherine Johnson, Presidential Honorary Doctor Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Eberly College of Arts and Sciences; and country music legend Charlie McCoy, Honorary Doctor of Musical Arts, College of Creative Arts.
Advice for the ages
Graduation season, as President Gordon Gee noted, serves as “advice season” on the nation’s 5,000 campuses.
The Class of 2016 received a whirlwind of advice from speakers ranging from a Huffington Post senior politics editor, Paige Lavender, to respected West Virginia education lawyer Howard Seufer, to President Gee himself.
“Each year, graduates hear the usual bromides: Be true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Remember that life is about the journey, not the destination,” Gee told the crowd at the ceremony for School of Medicine and School of Pharmacy Ph.D. graduates. “So, what advice am I going to give you? Be true to yourself. Follow your dreams. Remember that life is about the journey, not the destination.
“Because sometimes well-worn platitudes become well-worn for a reason. They really do point the way to happiness, and those of us who have learned their value on life’s twisting always want to smooth the road for those just staring out.”
Gee urged graduates to write down the top five things that reflect how they want to live life.
“Glory is fleeting in a world where posting a cat video on YouTube can make you a celebrity,” he said. “So instead of chasing it, write down the top five things that reflect how you want to live your life.
“For me, this should include things like ‘family time’ or ‘listen to good music every day.’ And for all of us, it should include more complex ideas like ‘honesty’ and ‘simplicity.’
Above all, it should include ‘making a difference.’ Because even the strongest passion, if based on selfishness, will lead to a dead end.”
CONTACT: University Relations/News
Follow @WVUToday on Twitter