Winter Commencement 2023: Overcoming challenges made graduates more resilient

Beyond their diplomas, beyond the colorful hoods and sashes and shining pins, the nearly 570 graduates who attended Radford University’s Winter Commencement events also received something they can now carry with them for the rest of their lives.


They got a wealth of powerful advice – from university officials and faculty; from a highly accomplished and high-ranking corporate executive; and from their own peers and classmates, family and friends.

Across the numerous speeches delivered Dec. 7-9, many of these mentors urged their audiences to be present and yet also remain aware of life’s broader contexts, particularly as they prepared to embark on new and daunting adventures.

One of those speakers was Board of Visitors Rector Debra K. McMahon.

“When you have these milestones in your life, it is really important that you do two things: reflect and savor,” she said in her opening remarks at the morning undergraduate ceremony, held Dec. 9 in Preston Hall’s Bondurant Auditorium.

“The reflect part is: Think about how you got here. Who helped you get here? What were your experiences like? Think about … when your grandchild asks you, ‘Where were you when COVID started?’ Or ‘Were you a “Swiftie” back in the day?’ Think about what you would tell them.

“And the second thing is savor,” McMahon advised.

“Savor these milestones because those savored moments are the moments that make up a good life.”

Keynote speaker Susan Carroll ’96 – president of Inova Loudoun Hospital in Leesburg, Virginia, and the senior vice president of Inova Health Systems – praised the graduates for advancing their educations during a historic period of adversity, the COVID-19 pandemic.

Keynote speaker Susan Carroll ’96, president of Inova Loudon Hospital in Leesburg, Virginia, and the senior vice president of Inova Health Systems

She observed that by working through that hardship and untold others along the way, they had gained a unique resilience.

“Resilience … is a journey,” she told them. “It is about facing life’s storms and emerging stronger. It’s not merely surviving challenges, but learning, growing and thriving through them.”

In her address, Carroll shared the story of a pivotal moment in her life and career: When she first became a hospital CEO, Carroll said, a nurse working the front lines of healthcare gave her a systemic criticism that stung – mincing few words, the nurse, a Russian native, essentially told her that organizational problems originate at the top, with management, and work their way down.

It was a perspective Carroll said ultimately forced her to re-evaluate her own approach to her life and her work.

“I realized that I was so focused on what I wanted to be that I had lost track of the essence of who I wanted to be,” she explained. “To lead an organization successfully, for people to want to follow me, I had to dig deep and see that my journey was like a tapestry of experiences, dreams and values that defined who I was becoming, and I was passing that on to my team.

“I needed to define what I valued and work on what I could instill in my company, what I wanted my personal beliefs to be, not just achievements,” she said.

Instead of being simply an executive, Carroll realized she also wanted to be a mentor and a servant leader, and she rediscovered her founding motive for working in healthcare in the first place, which was to help others.

“The belief that you want people to have about you is 100% up to you,” Carroll told the graduates.

“It is based on the experiences that you create for them. You have the ability to be intentional in your interactions, to create experiences that shape others’ beliefs.”

Radford’s winter Class of 2023: By the numbers

Just over 560 Highlanders received diplomas during Friday’s and Saturday’s ceremonies – 169 graduate students and 394 undergraduates.

They range in age from 20 to 73. Fifty-five of them, or about 10% of the total, are first-generation college students.


Worldwide, some came from as far away as Congo, Estonia, India, Nigeria, Peru, the Philippines and Trinidad and Tobago, while within North America, students hailed from as far north as New York and as southward as Florida.

Others hewed still closer to this region – this winter’s class included representatives from 77 of Virginia’s 133 localities. More locally, it counted among its numbers proud alumni from high schools in Fairfax, Franklin, Montgomery and Roanoke counties and elsewhere, including Radford High.

Significant percentages of the graduates are headed for careers in healthcare and medicine – with 89 receiving their undergraduate degrees in nursing and 47 and 40 earning graduate degrees in occupational therapy and physician assistant, respectively.

And each graduate who came forward to receive their diploma also shook the hand of Radford University President Bret Danilowicz.

“As you cross the stage today, know that all faculty and staff of Radford University are very proud of your accomplishments,” the president declared during Saturday’s festivities.

“You took the experiences and mentoring that we provided, and ultimately, you followed through to meet and exceed every expectation for learning that was set in front of you,” Danilowicz told them.

“That is worthy of celebration.”

Livestreams of the full undergraduate and graduate ceremonies are available to view on

RUC Physician Assistant White Coat Ceremony

On Thursday, Dec. 7, family and friends gathered at the Taubman Museum of Art in downtown Roanoke for the Physician Assistant (PA) White Coat Ceremony.


The event recognizes PA graduates with a presentation of a clinical lab coat, an emblem of their ascension to becoming healthcare professionals. Forty students received their coats during the event.


The ceremony also included recognition for several healthcare professionals and organizations that supported the students in the program, including Bobby Cockram Jr., D.M.Sc., PA-C ’21, who was recognized as Alumnus of the Year; Eric Swisher, M.D., named the Preceptor of the Year; and Tri-Area Community Health, receiving the Partnership Award.

PA student Abigail Sigmon was named the Anne T. Dale Award for Student Excellence recipient for 2023, and Elizabeth Abel received the Clinical Excellence Award. 

Additionally, four PA students were inducted into the Pi Alpha Honor Society — the national physician assistant honor society for the promotion and recognition of PA students and graduates. 

Commencement events

At Radford’s campus on Friday, Dec. 8, Hemphill Hall hosted the ROTC Winter Commissioning Ceremony. Cadet Colin Boll received his commission, earning the rank of second lieutenant. He took the oath of office and was pinned by his parents, Mark and Debbie Boll, and by his grandparents, Albert and Anne Boll. He received his first salute from Cadet Shelby Valade.


Colin Boll, who earned his Bachelor of Science in exercise, sport and health education with a minor in leadership and military science, held multiple leadership positions while at Radford.

Also on Friday, 47 students received their Master of Occupational Therapy pins at the Hurlburt Student Center Auditorium, and 88 graduates and undergraduates of the School of Nursing were pinned in Bondurant Auditorium.

Ten graduates were recognized at the Honors College Medallion Ceremony in the Douglas and Beatrice Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts later that day.

Five of those students were named Highlander Honors Scholars, the highest academic distinction bestowed upon Radford’s undergraduates for completing a 27-credit honors curriculum and for presenting their capstone project while maintaining a grade point average of 3.5 or greater.

This winter’s Highlander Honors Scholars were Rebecca Allen (history and psychology), Grace Burke (communication sciences & disorders), Kristen Chick (allied health sciences), Cassandra Hash (biology) and Ashley Pandelides (allied health sciences).

Five more earned Highlander Honors Distinctions for completing a 15-credit honors curriculum alongside capstone projects and with a 3.5 GPA or higher.

The Highlander Honors Distinctions recipients were Rachel Bird (allied health sciences), Maegan Burnette (communication sciences & disorders), Jahsmine Fowler (psychology), Grant McDonel (cybersecurity) and Jordan Rozell (allied health sciences).  

Stories from the winter Class of 2023


Graduate Commencement and Hooding Ceremony, Dec. 8, 2023


Graduate Commencement and Hooding Ceremony, Dec. 8, 2023


Undergraduate commencement, Dec. 9, 2023


Nursing Pinning Ceremony, Dec. 8, 2023


Nursing Pinning Ceremony, Dec. 8, 2023


Master of Occupational Therapy Pinning Ceremony, Dec. 8, 2023


Physician Assistant White Coat Ceremony, Dec. 7, 2023


ROTC Winter Commissioning Ceremmony, Dec. 8, 2023


Dec 12, 2023
Neil Harvey