Highlanders begin ‘a new chapter’ as the university holds Spring Commencement 2024 ceremonies

“This is my time,” Kaya Myers said, waiting eagerly but patiently for a cue to march.

It was a moment she had been working toward for the past few years: her graduation day at Radford University. “It took me a long time, about five years, because I had a lot of obstacles, like medical conditions,” she explained. “But I’ve overcome those obstacles, and here I am. Radford has prepared me well for the real world, and I’m ready to graduate.”

A short walk away, among the thousands of family and friends of the soon-to-be graduates, stood Tony Myers, Kaya’s father. He was too … everything to sit down.

“I’m proud, nervous, happy, relieved, excited,” said Tony Myers, who left Fairfax, Virginia, at 4:30 that Saturday morning and drove straight, no stops, to make it to Radford in time to see his daughter graduate. “It’s all for her. I’m just happy she’s finally made it, though. She did it!”

She certainly did. Myers, a sociology major, was among the 848 undergraduate Radford University students who received their hard-earned degrees on that overcast and sometimes rainy May 4 morning on Moffett Lawn. Add that number to the 215 graduate degrees that were conferred the night before, May 3, at the College of Graduate Studies ceremony for a total of 1,398 graduates from the university at Spring Commencement 2024.


As Benjarman Minor lined up with fellow chemistry majors waiting for the ceremony to begin, the Charlottesville, Virginia, native reflected on his time at Radford and what it has meant to him as a student and for his future.

“Graduation represents a new chapter in my life. I get to move on to something totally different,” Minor said. “I took advantage of a lot of opportunities here at Radford, but I’m excited to get out and work and do something different and move into a different chapter.”

The ways Radford has prepared Minor “has been invaluable,” he said, reflecting on the experiences and connections he made on campus. “If I’m lucky enough to be old and gray, I might forget what room I stayed in or what classroom I was in, but the people I met and the bonds that I made, they’ll be there forever.”

Moments later, as the buzz grew among the graduates lined up to march, someone shouted, “I felt the first one,” speaking of a raindrop that fell from the ominous dark gray clouds above. “It’s coming.”

Sure enough, as “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1” began, so did the rain; a light sprinkle briefly became a steady shower before diminishing to a sprinkle again. There was no dampening of spirits and emotions, however, as the graduation candidates walked to their seats while ponchos unfolded and umbrellas popped.

Soon after everyone was seated, Radford University President Bret Danilowicz approached the podium on stage with a dozen or so faculty, administrators and guests smiling behind him, out into the crowd, on this joyful occasion. 

“Sometimes when it rains, it pours. But sometimes when it rains, Highlanders graduate!” the president said, prompting a loud cheer.


Radford University President Bret Danilowicz.

“This is your day to celebrate what you have accomplished, no matter what path you took, how long it took, or whether you completed your degree in person or online,” Danilowicz said. “As you cross the stage, know that all Radford faculty and staff take tremendous pride in your accomplishments. You met and exceeded every requirement for learning that was placed before you. And now, you have reached an elevated status as Radford University graduates. That is worthy of celebration.”

The president spoke of the graduates’ many accomplishments, singling out a few for their extraordinary efforts, before ceding the microphone to alumnus Mark Pace ’92, who delivered this year’s commencement address.

Pace, the president and owner of E.C. Pace Co., encouraged the graduates to continue to challenge themselves and step away from their comfort zones, as they had already done to earn their undergraduate degrees. “What I’m asking for is 10%. Do 10% more every day,” Pace said. “Mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually challenging yourself. This is what makes leaders.”

Student Government President Lora Ellen Star addressed her fellow graduates, encouraging them to celebrate not only their individual successes but also the accomplishments of everyone around them. “Today, as we stand on the brink of new beginnings, let us embrace the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead with courage, optimism and determination,” Star said. “As we say farewell to Radford University, we will carry with us the memories we have made, the lessons we have learned and the friendships we have formed.”


Before degrees were conferred, the university recognized its ROTC program with newly commissioned U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Shelby J. Valade taking the oath of office from Lt. Col. Daniel Harrison. A little more than 24 hours earlier, Valade and two other new second lieutenants from ROTC, Ahava E. Heart and Abdul S. Kassim, received their commissions at a ceremony in the Bonnie Hurlburt Student Center auditorium. The commissioning was one of many other commencement-related ceremonies on the docket that day, May 3. 

Among those was the Graduation and Hooding Ceremony in the Dedmon Center for students of the College of Graduate Studies. Amanda Cox, MBA ’21, served as keynote speaker and shared her unique path to finding her way to Radford to pursue an MBA at age 37. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, she persevered through the challenges of balancing school, career and family.

Cox, the external affairs manager at Appalachian Power Co., said the relationships she built at Radford “still mean the world to me. I encourage you to hold on to the relationships you’ve built during your time here.”

Speaking to the value of a Radford University graduate degree, Cox told graduates that their new degrees can bring endless possibilities. “Make it work for you,” she said, “the way you worked for it.”

Earlier that day, the Honors College recognized 25 graduates with a medallion ceremony in the Douglas and Beatrice Covington Center for Visual and Performing Arts.

More than half of that total were named Highlander Honors Scholars, which is Radford’s highest academic designation for undergraduates who complete a 27-credit hour curriculum as well as a capstone project while also achieving a 3.5 GPA or greater. 


Mark Pace ’92.

The 13 Highlander Honors Scholars were Lucas Biscan-White (biology and art), Logan Dovidio (chemistry), Sierra Dean (biology), Aaliyah Hall (criminal justice), Abigail Harrington (allied health sciences), Jackson Hunter (marketing), Olivia Hunter (political science), Layan Ibrahim (criminal justice), Skyler Prosser (foods and nutrition), Cierra Reed (biology), Anna Shewchuk (middle school education), Angelina Walters (anthropological sciences) and Shyheim Woods (psychology). Another eight students achieved Highlander Honors Distinctions for completing a 15-credit honors curriculum and their capstone projects while maintaining a GPA of 3.5 or better.

The spring Highlander Honors Distinction graduates were Ariana Armendariz (nursing), Miranda Brewster (communication sciences and disorders), Samaia Brown (criminal justice), Julia Buccola (physics), Adam Downs (mathematics and cybersecurity), Haven Foley (psychology), Kelsey Moseley (allied health sciences) and Brittle Williams (psychology).

“So many students were challenged just to stay in college, but you asked for more,” said Honors College Director Niels Christensen, acknowledging that many of the students began their freshman year studies at the height of the pandemic. “You, the Honors College graduates, you are here today and we are so impressed ... by your talent and persistence.”

Some 110 graduates of Radford’s School of Nursing took to the stage in Bondurant Auditorium to receive their pins from friends and family at a ceremony held Friday afternoon. The event’s keynote speaker was Devin LaPuasa, chief nursing officer at LewisGale Hospital Montgomery.

LaPuasa spoke frankly about the seriousness of the conditions and situations the new nurses will likely all face in the future, but she also pointed to a source of inspiration from the past – the poet Walt Whitman, who, during the American Civil War, served as a volunteer nurse, caring for wounded soldiers in military hospitals in Virginia and Washington, D.C. 


U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Shelby J. Valade (right) takes the U.S. Army oath of office from Lt. Col. Daniel Harrison during the university’s ROTC commission ceremony May 3, 2024.

“Whitman’s decision ... was a profound expression of his own empathy, compassion and sense of duty to care for his fellow human beings,” LaPuasa explained and briefly recited a passage from Whitman’s 1865 poem ‘The Wound Dresser,’  inspired by his experiences, before returning to the immediate present. “You have made it,” she reminded the graduates. “The day that you have thought about, worried would never come, anticipated ... it is here. You’ve done it. What a remarkable milestone you have achieved.”

Also, on Friday, Doctor of Physical Therapy (D.P.T.) students received white coats and pins at a ceremony at the Vinton War Memorial in Vinton, Virginia. Students received their white coats and were pinned by family members and loved ones. 

The university’s Center for Diversity and Inclusion held a Multicultural Congratulatory Friday night with about 80 students in attendance.” A lot of our students come from marginalized identities and from various backgrounds,” said Center for Diversity and Inclusion Director Shannon Shastry. “I would say it was definitely very powerful for them to be able to have the opportunity to be recognized based on their identities as well as their academic achievement, and it’s even more special for their family and friends to not only be present but to participate in the ceremony as well.”


Amanda Cox, MBA ’21 speaks to graduates at the Graduation and Hooding Ceremony in the Dedmon Center on May 3.

Serving as the keynote speaker was Ebonyse Mead, the educational developer for Inclusion and Belonging and the RISE Faculty Institute Program director in the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Juliana Corrales, an early childhood special education major who was selected as a Virginia 2024 Teacher of Promise, was the student speaker.

Among those receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees at commencement, the majority, 1,267, came from towns and cities in Virginia. Graduates also represented Maryland (21), North Carolina (14), Washington, D.C. (10), Tennessee (eight), Florida (seven), New Jersey (seven), Pennsylvania (seven), New York (six) and West Virginia (five). International graduates came from Ethiopia, Canada and El Salvador.

The youngest graduate was 19, and the oldest was 69. The top four majors were nursing, with 172 graduates, followed by psychology (83), management (72) and criminal justice (60).

About 40% of Radford’s enrollment is made up of first-generation college students. This spring, 353 of those graduated. One was Christian Belcher, a psychology major from Big Stone Gap, Virginia, who minored in music education. Standing in line before the Saturday morning undergraduate ceremonies, donning a red first-generation college student stole, Belcher spoke of the significance of his Radford education and what it means to his family.

“Radford has helped me find my way,” said Belcher, who plans to be a primary school teacher. He’ll soon begin working as a teacher’s aide in Wise County Public Schools while also pursuing a master’s degree.

“My father is a coal miner; my mom is a stay-at-home mom,” Belcher explained. “My brother is going to go to college, too, so we’re taking a whole step in another direction for our family.”

May 7, 2024
Chad Osborne
(540) 831-7761