A Special Commencement for Italian Graduates

By Prof. Monica Seger

This year’s spring commencement was, like so many things right now, quite different than usual. Rather than gathering on campus with friends and colleagues from throughout Modern Languages and Literatures for a department-wide ceremony, students and faculty in Italian Studies celebrated from afar with a Zoom commencement of our own. Just before 2:00pm on Saturday, May 16, we checked our hair, made sure that at least the top half of our outfit was presentable, grabbed a glass for a virtual toast at ceremony’s end, and sat down in front of our individual computer screens throughout the Commonwealth and beyond. Although different and distanced, the ceremony that followed turned out to be incredibly special.

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Ambassador Varricchio

This was in no small part thanks to our keynote speaker: His Excellency Armando Varricchio, the Ambassador of Italy to the United States. Just one week before the event, Italian Instructor Rita Paolino had a brilliant idea: as long as we were using the remote platform for our commencement, why not reach out to the ambassador’s office with an invitation? Like the rest of us, he would simply need to connect online rather than travel to Williamsburg. It was thanks to such remote connectivity, for example, that we were also able to welcome students’ far-flung family members, as well as a few of our beloved alumni. Declaring tentar non nuoce (it doesn’t hurt to try), we issued the invitation and were surprised and delighted to be met by an enthusiastic yes.

Not only did the ambassador stop by our virtual commencement to wish our graduates well, he delivered a heartfelt address then stayed with us until our virtual toast and final farewells. Along with 30 or so other attendees, he listened attentively as we thanked our teaching assistants; recognized members of Gamma Kappa Alpha, the National Italian Honor Society; paid tribute to our International Fellow, Chiara di Maio; and celebrated each of our graduating seniors in turn: Tianyi Vanessa Cai, Tyler Cox-Philyaw, Kathryn Donati, Marisa Lemma and Zoe Nelson. While the whole ceremony was an intimate and festive tribute to the accomplishments of our students and the benefits of studying another language and culture, Ambassador Varricchio’s address was undeniably the highlight. Effortlessly combining ceremonial gravitas with a friendly élan, he spoke of William & Mary’s tradition of Italian Studies dating back to Thomas Jefferson; of the deep ties between North America and Italy; and of the inspiration to be found in studying Italy’s deep cultural traditions from Dante to Fellini.

Cheers ItalianPerhaps most significantly, Ambassador Varricchio spoke directly to our graduating seniors, recognizing their accomplishments and encouraging them to seize the potential for progress and positive change, even in challenging times. It was an unforgettable way to end this unprecedented academic year, and a truly special experience through which to mark the impressive undergraduate career of our graduating students. We wish them all the best as they move on to exciting next steps, including teaching appointments, research fellowships, and graduate study, and we thank the ambassador for his generosity of time and spirit. Here’s to continued cross-cultural learning and to future collaborations, whatever the platform!

Watch the Ambassador’s remarks here.

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