The applause began as soon as the live camera feed on the EagleBank Arena scoreboard showed members of the George Mason University Class of 2022 triumphantly filing into the building, one elongated green wave. And why not? Friday’s livestreamed ceremony marked Mason’s first in-person Spring Graduation since 2019.
This was the largest graduating class of any Virginia public university this year. These Patriots had the distinction of graduating as part of Mason’s 50th anniversary celebration. And, oh yeah, the Class of ’22 has weathered one of the most challenging U.S. college experiences of any graduating class of the past century.
This tassel flip felt like a long time coming.
“Graduates, your journey has been like no other,” Mason President Gregory Washington told a class that includes more than 10,000 degree and certificate earners. “You could not have anticipated the challenges that would arise during your time here. None of us could…However, you leave here—scars and all—more prepared than any class before you to tackle and solve the challenges [we face]. Everything that has been thrown at you, you’ve just kept going. And I am proud to have you all be graduates today.”
Washington highlighted a few of the honorees, including the mother-daughter combination each earning degrees—Kathleen Chang, 66, (doctor of nursing practice) and Jinlee Colucci-Chang, 23, (art and visual technology), a two-generation shout-out that delighted the masked crowd. So did Washington’s acknowledgement of Madison Essig (integrative studies) and Charlotte Woodward (sociology), who became just the fifth and sixth students born with Down syndrome to ever graduate with a degree from a U.S. university.
Washington drew a particularly rousing ovation when he pointed out one particular advantage of being a Mason grad in a class with students from 89 countries, 47 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and foreign military installations.
“You earned a degree from a university whose campus looks like what America will soon look like,” he said as the cheers went up. “That is a campus with no clear ethnic majority. You’re accustomed to working and collaborating across cultures and diversity of origin, identity, circumstance, and, yes, thought.”
Mason Rector Jimmy Hazel presented an honorary degree of doctor of humane letters to the Commencement speaker, Stu Shea, chairman and CEO of Peraton, a national security company based in Northern Virginia. Citing the university’s 50th anniversary, Shea referred to the graduates as a “gold-medal class.”
Shea, who took a graduate course at Mason in 1987 and has served on the university’s College of Science Advisory Board, urged the graduates to understand how their actions, even ones that might seem incremental, can result in enduring impact. He noted some of the graduates Mason has produced, citing Pulitzer Prize winners, novelists, ambassadors, poets, professors, doctors, lawyers, politicians, CEOs, scientists, and public servants.
“Approach your life journey with a passion and attitude to do the ‘can’t be done,’” said Shea, whose company includes 450 Mason alums. “Simple acts, such as taking that first step, can inspire a nation, raise awareness for a cause, motivate change, invent something new, or allay the fears of the unknown. Dig deep to find what you feel most passionate about and pursue a future in what you honestly value in life.
“I can assure you that your time at George Mason has prepared you well for your future. Mason has changed your lives, but Patriots can change the world,” Shea added as applause rippled through the arena.
Provost Mark Ginsberg introduced student speaker Bhagya Nair, who graduated from the School of Business with a bachelor of science in information systems and operations management (ISOM)—hence the “I Came, ISOM, I Conquered” declaration on her graduation cap.
Nair recounted how her enthusiasm at the start of her Mason career waned during the pandemic when she returned home to Richmond, Virginia, and how in November 2020 her father died from cardiogenic shock.
“I hit a new low in life and was lost as to what life would be like without him, because he was my inspiration to do a business degree at Mason,” said Nair, who is a first-generation college graduate like 27% of Mason’s Class of ’22. “The day he passed, I had a choice to make: I could allow this life-changing event to tank me, or I could get back up and fight to the finish.”
Nair credited the support of family, friends and Mason faculty for helping her stay focused on her academic goals, and she eventually resumed a busy life on campus. During her time at Mason, Nair studied abroad in Spain and Morocco and held leadership roles in the Tu Bhi Nachle dance competition, the Mason Mahima dance team, and Alpha Xi Delta, among other activities.
Nair has a job lined up as a technical analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, where she interned last summer. Some 88% of 2021 Mason grads reported a positive career outcome within six months of completing their degree.
Mason Alumni Association President Sumeet Shrivastava welcomed the Class of ’22 into the organization, encouraging the graduates to tell their Mason story and to remember that they are now part of an alumni base of more than 220,000.
“As you think about that number, I want you to think about the fact that you’ve reached where you are today with [help from] family and friends and professors and counselors and others. But now, you get this new family,” Shrivastava said. “You get this family that has walked in your steps. That means no matter where you go now, or what industry you join, there’s probably an alum. It means no matter where you settle, there’s a location with an alum nearby that you can count on.”