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Wheeling University graduates 215 during pandemic year

Contributed GRADUATION — Wheeling University conferred more than 200 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees during its 63rd Commencement Ceremony Saturday. From left are Valedictorian Kayla Smith, Wheeling University President Ginny R. Favede, and U.S. Congressman David McKinley, who served as commencement speaker.

WHEELING — Wheeling University valedictorian Kayla Smith of Shadyside was visibly nervous Saturday prior to taking the podium to address fellow graduates, but an experienced speaker was close by to offer advice.

WU graduated 215 on Saturday during its 63rd commencement ceremony — which took place this year outside at Bishop Schmidt field. Prior to the start of events, Smith chatted with commencement speaker U.S. Rep. David B. McKinley, R-West Virginia, who noticed her edginess.

“I’ve been thinking about this all year,” she told him about her speech.

McKinley told her to find someone in the crowd to look in the eye as she spoke, and to concentrate on that person.

Soon it came time for her to take the podium.

“It is kind of ironic that I am standing up here and giving this speech today,” she told her fellow classmates. “Because between the years of 2007 to 2015 my mom (Ann Watson) served as a faculty member and eventually department chair of the nursing program here at Wheeling.

“I would always look at her and say, ‘Mom, I am never going to that school.’ Mostly I said it because one — I was being a brat. And two — who wants to ride with their mom to school when they are in college anyway.”

Smith, an exercise science major, plans to work at a rehabilitation clinic in Wheeling and further her education in the medical field.

She said during her time as a college student she witnessed her school’s name change from Wheeling Jesuit University to Wheeling University, and WU President Ginny Favede step in “to become the leader we all needed.”

“Then we had another major curveball thrown our way as we ended up in the middle of a world-wide pandemic,” she said. “We dealt with the challenges of on-line learning and being isolated, not knowing what the future held for us.”

Smith said students also faced the loss of “beloved and respected” professor Ken Rastall during the past year.

McKinley, in his speech to the graduates, praised them for their resilience during the past year.

“You are graduating at a very unique time,” he said. “America is finally emerging from this global pandemic.

“While the future may look encouraging, there is still plenty of uncertainty.

“My message for you today is to embrace that uncertainty and take risks.”

He said America has unfortunately become a nation of people largely unwilling to take risks. They want things convenient and safe, according to McKinley.

“We need you as young people to push on and challenge the status quo, develop innovative ideas and move the country forward.”

McKinley also praised the current leadership at WU.

“I know this college has faced some difficult times, but Ginny Favede stepped up to lead,” he said. “She and her board of trustees have put the college on the road to stability, accreditation and growth.”

Favede gave an emotional address to the seniors, and explained she felt like “a helicopter mom for 800 children.”

“This moment celebrates not just an important milestone in your lives, but the resilience and determination that your class of 2021 has demonstrated during a truly unbelievable time,” she told the students. “I won’t promise you that I won’t cry. And I won’t promise… that I won’t hug someone today.”

Favede also presented during Saturday’s commencement ceremony the Gannon Outstanding Teaching Award to former Ohio County Schools Superintendent Dianna Vargo, who now serves as director of graduate education and accelerated certification for teaching programs at WU.

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