West Virginia University President Gordon Gee’s knack for risk-taking is generally well-known, as is his encouragement to students to live lives based on their passions, not their fears. In his weekend (May 10-12) commencement addresses to WVU graduates across campus, Gee urged future risk balanced on what they’ve learned.
“Loss aversion may protect us from some bad decisions, but it can also hold us back from realizing our full potential,” Gee told graduates. “I believe the greatest risk all of you will face is giving in to your fear of taking risks. Your West Virginia University education has prepared you well for taking similar chances and sharing your own expertise with the world.”
College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences graduate Dylan Jordan took Gee seriously. Jordan, the last person to receive his diploma during the College’s Commencement ceremony, is a self-described “reserved person” who is not given to public displays, but in order to surprise his girlfriend, Skyler VanGorkum, made an exception. VanGorkum, a photographer, was allowed on the floor to snap a photo of Jordan receiving his diploma. Instead, Jordan, an athletic coaching education major from Crofton, Maryland, got a microphone, took a knee and proposed. Amid cheers from the audience, VanGorkum tearfully accepted.
“Commencement and me graduating is the start of the rest of our lives together,” Jordan said. “I want us to share this important transition together and remember it forever.”
It wasn’t the only love story of the day.
Robert and Tiffany Bellissimo met while they were playing soccer as students—a junior and a freshman, respectively—at Berkeley Springs High School. They risked a long-distance relationship between 2014 and 2016 while Robby attended WVU and Tiffany finished high school. Married in a small ceremony at Cooper’s Rock in 2016, the Bellissimos graduated from the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design, Robby with a degree in forest resources management, and Tiffany with a degree in animal and nutritional sciences.
“We knew that we loved each other greatly and wanted to be together no matter what, but it also was important for us to focus on our education,” Tiffany Bellissimo said. “We realized how much we wanted to be together and that our relationship could weather nearly anything.”
Huntington Fire Chief Jan Rader took a different kind of risk when she went into the medical field. Rader, who was featured in the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Heroin(e)” by WVU alumna Elaine McMillion Sheldon, was working in a jewelry store in Huntington when she witnessed a cardiac arrest in the doorway.
Since then, she’s taken CPR and EMT-Basic classes, become a registered nurse and now oversees rescues in one of the most opioid-fraught cities in West Virginia. Overcoming that problem will mean the entire state must take the risk of treating those who suffer from substance use disorder differently, she said to School of Public Health graduates.
While for some graduates, taking risk would mean moving away, the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences speaker said that staying in West Virginia—even though it may be home—is a risk, and one worth taking.
“(H)ere there is the chance that the knowledge economy creates the opportunity—that a person can live in West Virginia, a place that still has what so many other places have lost or given away, and yet participate, through technology, in the economy of tomorrow,” said William Getty, former president of the Claude Worthington Benedum Foundation. “(W)hen it comes to recruiting or retaining talent, West Virginia isn’t Seattle or Boston, but then, neither of those places is almost heaven.”
Other notable moments during WVU commencement ceremonies:
· Hilde Lyshiak, 12, who started and operates her own newspaper, addressed the Reed College of Media. She is perhaps the youngest commencement speaker in history.
· A dozen mining engineering and civil engineering students in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, swapped mortarboards for hardhats as a “signal to our industry, school and families that West Virginia University graduates engineering professionals who are passionate and proud about their field of study.”
· Sixty-five student-athletes graduated this weekend, including Virginia Thrasher and Andrea Pettit, both Order of Augusta honorees. Thrasher, an Olympic Gold Medalist (2016) and a WVU Rifle standout, earned a degree in biomedical engineering. Pettit, a member of the WVU Track and Field Cross Country team, graduated with a degree in immunology and medical microbiology from the School of Medicine.
· Men’s basketball players James “Beetle” Bolden, Lamont West and Chase Harler and Naomi Davenport and Katrina Pardee from the women’s basketball team graduated this weekend, as did football players Reese Donahue and Colton McKivitz. Gymnast Kirah Koshinski earned a communications degree.
· Stedman Bailey, WVU’s outstanding wide receiver in 2012, who was drafted by the St. Louis Rams, graduated from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.