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Virginia Tech graduations honor slain students

Thousands of Virginia Tech graduates struggled to balance joy with grief as commencement ceremonies got under way Friday, less than a month after a student gunman's rampage devastated the campus.
A Virginia Tech graduate student wipes away tears as she reads the biographies of her slain classmates during graduation ceremonies at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., on Friday.
A Virginia Tech graduate student wipes away tears as she reads the biographies of her slain classmates during graduation ceremonies at Cassell Coliseum in Blacksburg, Va., on Friday.Don Petersen / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The image most people have of Kevin Sterne is harrowing: a photo showing a tourniquet wrapped around his wounded leg as rescue workers rushed him out of Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall.

But on Saturday, there was a new image of the 22-year-old former Eagle Scout: jubilant and full of life as he limped across the stage at the university’s Cassell Coliseum using a crutch and displaying a grin to accept his degree in electrical engineering.

The crowd rose to its feet and cheered Sterne in one of the most poignant moments of the morning commencement ceremony at the College of Engineering.

Posthumous honors
It was one of several campus ceremonies in which individual colleges and departments handed out diplomas to students, including posthumous degrees to those killed in the April 16 attack at a dormitory and classroom building.

The College of Engineering was hit particularly hard, with 11 students and three professors killed in the shooting.

Engineering Dean Richard Benson was overwhelmed, his voice breaking at times, as he spoke about the slain.

“Forgive me,” Benson said quietly as he paused to collect himself while commemorating professor Kevin Granata, who was shot in a hallway as he tried to save students during the rampage in which 33 people were killed.

The widow of G.V. Loganathan accepted a teaching award in honor of her husband, a man Benson said students fondly regarded as the best professor they ever had, the kindest person they ever met and incredibly wise.

Another slain professor, Dr. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, was remembered by the dean for his “profound courage” in blocking his classroom door so his students could escape out the windows. He was among those killed by student gunman Seung-Hui Cho, who took his own life.

Chimes for the victims
Professors, students, their families and friends wept openly as those attending the political science department’s ceremony were asked to remain silent while a bell chimed for each of nine slain students and their posthumous degrees were awarded.

Professor Edward Weisband said he has vivid memories of each of them in class, “attentive, bright, caring.”

He promised their families that their children’s empty seats “shall always remain in any class I teach.”

As the overflow crowd rose to honor several of the department’s six injured students who were able to attend, Weisband said, “We take inexpressible joy in your survival.”

At an English department ceremony, nearly all of the 135 graduating students and many faculty members stood when asked if they knew someone killed or injured in the shooting spree. The crowd of several hundred rose and applauded loudly as posthumous degrees were awarded to sophomore Ross Abdallah Alameddine and senior Ryan Clark, who was one of two students killed in a dormitory before the gunman moved to the classroom building.

‘We are Virginia Tech’
English professor Nikki Giovanni read “We are Virginia Tech,” a poem she penned hours after the rampage that infused a campus convocation with strength the day after the shootings. She was inspired, she said Saturday, by the desire to convey that “what we do is more important than what is done to us.”

The individual school ceremonies continued the theme of striking a balance between celebration and sorrow that began with a university commencement event Friday night.

While one engineering student’s mortarboard read “This 2 shall pass,” and one bore the name of victim Jarrett Lane, another graduate’s said “4 HIRE.” Students tossed around an inflatable beach ball and booed when it was confiscated.

Faces were somber as the dean commemorated the dead, but graduates broke out in cheers and tossed their mortarboards in the air as the ceremony concluded.

At the English department ceremony, department chairwoman Carolyn Rude said this year’s commencement could not leave behind the heart-rending events of a month ago, but she said tragedy can be used to heal.

“It does its best work within us if it enhances our resilience, our wisdom and our ability to care,” she said. “It finds its best expression in our will to honor the lives of those we have lost.”