President Maxey speaks at the Class of 2021 Commencement
By Roanoke College News

Pres. Maxey's message to the Class of 2021

Welcome to Commencement.  Welcome Class of 2021.  You made it!  

Parents, families, friends, please join me in expressing your congratulations to this excellent group of soon-to-be college graduates… 

Students would you turn to your family members to wave and express your appreciation for their support…

Thanks to people who made graduation happen - Susan Rambo and our faculty and staff. Thanks to Mr. Courts for leading our College so well and for caring enough to be with us today.

Thanks to Salem for allowing us to use Salem Memorial Stadium.  Thanks as well to Virginia’s public health officials. This has been a team effort.

Class of 2021, I want to share a few thoughts about what has been normal and abnormal about your time at Roanoke and what it means.  I want to tell you how grateful I am, that we are, for your efforts to make the normal and abnormal work.  We would not be here today without sacrifices by you. 

Your last 15 months have been anything but normal.  Wondering about remote courses.  Wondering about whether we would make it through the semester.  Wondering about vaccinations. 

Things were anything but normal for you since March 11, 2020. 

Before March 11 we all had a different perspective on normality at “dear ole Roanoke”.  Normal meant other things.

Normal was 98.6 degrees.

Normal was a night with friends at Mac and Bob’s enjoying a Bostonzone.

Normal was gathering shoulder-to-shoulder to cheer the Maroons from the stands.

Normal was greeting one another with handshakes, hugs, and high fives.

Normal was hard to come by for the past 15 months.  In fact, you have been tested in extraordinarily abnormal ways. 

On one of my walks around campus, I stopped to talk with a freshman.  I asked about how things are going and what she missed during the pandemic.  She told me that she missed “breakfasts with her grandfather” when she was home.  She missed that normality.  She also told me how she loved being able to compete in athletics this spring.  That felt normal.

One of the good consequences of the pandemic was that we learned about the normal parts of our lives that are precious.  We recognized normal things that we missed.  Breakfast with a grandfather does not always seem like a huge matter but it is.  Ordinary experiences do not always feel like they matter, but they do. 

The conversation made me think of you.   You are experts in understanding normal and abnormal times at Roanoke and in your lives.  Since you arrived, you had 2 ¾ normal years and 1 ¼ abnormal years.  Your careers at Roanoke have merged normal and abnormal.  Maybe, just maybe, the abnormal has been a gift.  Maybe it has been a way to understand the treasures found in our normal lives, in ordinary things we take for granted. 

Part of what makes you different or abnormal in Roanoke’s history is that you had this hundred year pandemic experience while you tried to be normal Maroons.  Quite a challenge!   I am reminded of the words of Maggie Stiefvater in one of her books who said, “I didn’t want normal until I didn’t have it anymore.”

The normal good things in life are more appreciated, more treasured because the pandemic made us miss them so much.  We feel less entitled by virtue of this experience.     

As strange as these last 15 months were, there were, however, normal, wonderful Roanoke experiences for you.

During your Roanoke time you heard Supreme Court Justices Neil Gorsuch and Sonia Sotomayor.  You competed in Spike Ball.  Spike ball in masks was a sight to behold.   Outdoor bingo happened with the best prizes.  There were international film festivals.  You pursued honors and wrote papers.  You observed Passover and Easter.  You set record points in field hockey.  You enjoyed Maroon Madness with halftime hot dogs.  You made 2 am trips to Sheetz. 

You set 4 X 100 records.   You researched and published “Students’ Attitudes Towards Interfaith Relationships” and “Effects of Light on Lignin Gene Expression.”  You tended garden and held flower night.  Your fraternity gave away scholarships at ethics lectures.  You met Tibetan Monks.  You had WRKE shows.      

Howard Kurtz and Jenn Psaki spoke about the presidential election.  You participated in research showcases, in-person and virtually.  Monica Lewinsky spoke.  You were superfans and quiz bowlers.  PBK inducted you. You attended formals and looked for a social life while social living was elusive.  You created a Maroontube channel. 

You attended concerts.  A comforting normal thing was the popularity of Pancake Paradise and Chicken Tendie lunches and the caring attitude of Commons staff.  You had a flood on campus.  El Jefe was a destination.  You built our 12th Habitat House.  You were theologians on tap and discovered Freshens, and walked to MacAfee’s Knob.  

You did interrupted Washington  Semesters.  There were activity fairs.  You won a swimming championship and a Fulbright.  Brackety-Ack staff published a special edition for the 2020 graduating class.  Talk about a class act.  You eclipsed the 1,000 kill mark.

You attended teach-ins and discourse opportunities.   You vaulted.  RC Leadership summited.  You traveled to Ireland, Egypt, and Greece.  You observed Days of Silence.  You provided meals to others.  You built a virtual RC campus on Minecraft.  You built bears.  You dined at FOTQ.  You presented in INQ 300. You stayed up late talking about life and love and what else could gone wrong with COVID.  You won OMA, academic, and residence life awards.  You presented at the National Conference for Undergraduate Research.  You worked hard in senior seminar.  This week normal meant a senior picnic, wood burning your name. 

You also had abnormal events starting with a must-go-home announcement on March 11, 2020.  I remember the shock and frustration on your faces.

Since then you have encountered shifting schedules, remote courses, “you are on mute” reminders.  You attended the vaccination clinic.  You counted COVID-19 cases and wondered if we could make it through the semester.  I wondered, too, but never lost faith in you.

You learned masks were not always for Halloween.    

You did concerts virtually at Saint Andrew’s.  You had the most abnormal athletic season ever with all sports tilted into the spring semester.  You participated in Silent Disco, one of most fun but abnormal CAB events.  Faculty wanted to be with you in person but saw you on ZOOM.

Your life has been simultaneously normal and abnormal. 

World events were equally mixed. 

During your days, there were Olympics in Brazil. Syrian refugees overwhelmed Europe.  North Korea tested nuclear missiles.  We learned new words Brexit and Megxit. The 45th and 46th Presidents served.  Mueller’s report arrived.  The U.S. resigned and rejoined Paris Accords.  ISIS waxed and waned.  We talked more than ever about the border.  U.S. women’s soccer won the World Cup and demanded equal pay.  Stephen Hawking died.  We marveled at the Solar eclipse. New Horizons is leaving the solar system.  Antarctic and Arctic ice melted at unprecedented rates.  An Ebola epidemic ended before the beginning of Coronavirus pandemic.   We sweated through the hottest year ever recorded.  You monitored Tweets.  Women Marched.  Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria devastated.  Charlottesville violence shocked and accelerated necessary conversations about race.  George Floyd and Briana Taylor became tragic household names.  Dates like January 6 stick in our minds as we try to understand its significance.  There were terrible fires in California and Australia.     

Yes, you experienced and learned from normal and abnormal.  I am reminded of the words of a popular figure from your childhood, Fred Rogers.  Mr. Rogers said “There is no normal life that is free of pain. It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

If wrestling with problems makes us grow, you can make the case that you and your classmates have grown by leaps and bounds. 

As Maya Angelou reflected, “If you are always trying to be normal, you will never know how amazing you can be.”  You and your class have a glimpse of how amazing you can be because of what you have handled. 

I close my greeting with a reminder about 4 tools that are gifts from Roanoke to help you reach the amazing level that Maya Angelou called you to.  The 4 gifts were shared at orientation several years ago.  We called them Pillars then.  We add them to your Roanoke toolbox as gifts this morning. 

Gift #1

Pursue truth in all that you do.  Your knowledge, skills, and sense of what it ethical have all been enhanced as Maroons.  Use your knowledge, utilize those skills, follow that ethical compass to pursue truth.  In a world where truth seems hazy or elusive, pursue truth with a vengeance.

Gift #2

Serve others.  You read every day about the needs of the world.  There is injustice and inequality in the world so service to others is needed.  You will get more out of service and leadership than you will ever give away.  I promise.     

Gift #3

Commit to your community.  In our fractured world, committing to community is more important than ever.  Community does not happen magically.  It happens because you make it happen.  You saw that here over the past 15 months.  We maintained our community because you tried hard to do so. 

Gift #4

Do your personal best in pursuing truth, committing to community, and serving others.  Bring your A-game every day. 

Class of 2021, your experience is unique.  Your encounters with the normal and abnormal have been unique.  Use your uniqueness to reach amazing heights.  Use your experiences to treasure and appreciate normal daily living.   Use your experiences knowing you can handle abnormal challenges.  You have already done so.    

Godspeed to all you, Class of 2021.  We appreciate and celebrate you. 

Do well in life.  Do good in life.  Find purpose in life.