An ageless occasion: WVU's newest graduates celebrate triumphs, dreams at commencement 

A 94-year-old Army veteran. A rabbi-in-training. An aspiring brain surgeon.

No. This isn't the beginning of a bad joke.

Rather, those three individuals represent a sliver of West Virginia University's latest batch of graduates, a star-studded assemblage from 45 states and 43 countries who'll take that next leap into the unknown.

Just as diverse as their backgrounds and aspirations were the range of emotions on display all weekend as WVU christened its Class of 2015, sending 4,410 new graduates into the real world.

WVU hosted 17 ceremonies, including the inaugural Mountaineer Send-off, which saw people from all over the globe unite to sing, smile and shed tears.

It was a time to reflect – on the good, the bad and everything in between.

While many reflected on their fun times as Mountaineers, for some, like Ritu Dhungana, the road to academic enlightenment was littered with loss and despair.


The run-up to graduation has been bittersweet for Dhungana.

While she was making final revisions to her dissertation, a devastating earthquake shook her hometown of Kathmandu, Nepal, killing more than 8,000 people.

Startled, Dhungana followed the disaster through cousins' Facebook posts and tried reaching out to her parents. After 12 hours, she finally found out they were safe, although the quake had destroyed their home.

Previously, Dhungana's parents had planned to attend her graduation. But after rising from the ruins, her parents could have stayed in Nepal to focus on rebuilding their lives piece by piece.

But they made a promise. And kept it.

They came to Morgantown to witness their daughter receive her doctorate in political science.

President Gordon Gee told their story Sunday morning at the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences master's and doctoral graduates ceremony. The crowd at the Creative Arts Center gave them a thunderous applause.

Dhungana said her parents are happy for her. But, with her grandparents and other relatives still in Nepal, they're a bit uneasy

"I'm trying to enjoy this, but then we are always worried," she said. "I'm just hoping that there wouldn't be any aftershocks."

Instead of taking a much-deserved breather after submitting her dissertation, Dhungana spent the last few weeks in Morgantown working with the Nepalese Students and Scholars Association to raise money and awareness for her native homeland half-a-world away.

After Sunday, she is hoping that, with her Ph.D., she can help women gain a larger political and economic voice in Nepal, which she described as a patriarchal society.

Anthony "Tony" Brutto

76 years in the making

You may already know about Anthony "Tony" Brutto.

As WVU's oldest newest graduate at 94, Brutto recently made global headlines – his story was featured in Time, CNN, The Washington Post, Huffington Post, People and the London Daily Mail, just to name a few.

The Morgantown man first entered WVU in 1939 – when tuition was just $50 – but left when he was drafted in the Army Air Corps in 1942. Brutto returned in 1946 but again, right before finishing his degree, he had to withdraw. This time he left to take care of his ill wife.

Now, 76 years later, Brutto finally did it. On Sunday, he earned his Regents Bachelor of Arts degree.

“Thank you for serving our country, for taking care of your family and for being a true Mountaineer,” Gee said, as Brutto’s daughter and grandchildren joined him at the Mountaineer Send-off.

The success stories of Brutto and some of his fellow 2015 graduates were captured in the WVU Chronicles website.

Zevi Lowenberg

Also featured are the "rabbi-in-training" Zevi Lowenberg and "aspiring brain surgeon" Divine Nwafor, who received shout outs from Gee during Commencement.

Quitting to win

Quitting isn't always a bad thing – as Brutto's story illustrates.

The story of Jeremy Booker says the same.

Booker was raised by a single mother in Charleston and initially came to WVU to play tight end on the football team.

His time on the football field did not last. He eventually quit the team.

In his words, he had to quit football to mature as an adult, overcome financial hardship and improve his grades.

And that is what happened.

Jeremy Booker

Booker became the first black student marshal in the petroleum and natural gas engineering department. Not only did he excel in the classroom, but for the last three years he has worked full-time in the oil and gas industry.

On Sunday, he became the first engineer ever in his family.

Another graduate, Heather Adams, of the School of Pharmacy, plans to take her fused knowledge of pharmacy and athletics back to her hometown of Reedsville, Pennsylvania.

Adams was a thrower on the WVU women's track and field team. She threw discus, hammer and indoor weight.

"The combination of track and pharmacy school has influenced how I emphasize to patients that healthy lifestyle changes may be enough to initially manage their disease state," Adams said. "Also, when I am counseling, I often bring up and encourage exercise for my patients."

Adams will return to her hometown and work for CVS Health while she volunteers as a coach with local athletes.

While Booker, Adams and their 4,000-plus fellow members of the Class of 2015 plan to make their own special imprint on the world, one Reed College of Media graduate's dream goes beyond Earth.

Kristen Basham's goal is to become the "first Mountaineer to tweet from Mars."

"With all the amazing things happening in space, we need people who can tell those stories," she said.

Basham has already made strides. She has interned with NASA and will begin a full-time job there on Monday.

For other graduates, the weekend served as a family affair that seemed a little too familiar.

Over in the College of Business and Economics, a pair of twins – Bailey Lynch and her brother Adam – became the third generation of Lynches to graduate from WVU.

Their parents, Jim and Lisa, received degrees during Gee's first stint as president in the early 1980s.

"Bailey (business administration) and Adam (finance) are our youngest, our babies," said Lisa Lynch. "It feels like we've come full circle."

"We were able to get a photo with President Gee and Bailey and Adam," said Jim Lynch. "WVU has done so much for me in my life so it was very special.”

Words from the wise

If the journey thus far hasn't provided enough inspiration for new grads, the Class of 2015 certainly got a dose of encouragement from this weekend's guest speakers – ranging from an Olympic gold medalist to the senior vice president of ESPN SportsCenter to U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Sylvia Matthews Burwell, who capped off the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences undergraduate ceremony, the largest on campus.

Burwell was recognized with the University's first Presidential Honorary Degree, Doctor of Science. A native of Hinton, Burwell previously served as director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, president of the Walmart Foundation and president of the Global Development Program of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.


In her speech, Burwell attributed her successes to small-town West Virginia values.

"Hinton made me who I am and I take it with me wherever I go," she said. "My office in Washington is full of pictures and memorabilia from my life there: a map of the state, pictures of my family and friends. That community supported me and gave to me in incredible ways.

"That kind of support sticks with you. In Hinton, and here in West Virginia, people take care of each other. My mother wouldn’t let us go trick-or-treating for ourselves until we had trick-or-treated for UNICEF. We hit each house once for donations and then another time for candy."

Burwell explained that the degrees received by the graduates do not signify an end, or even a personal statement.

"I also want you to know that for all of its importance, the degree you receive today isn’t who you are," she said. "You are so much more than a piece of paper, no matter how impressive."

Others receiving honorary degrees this year include Preston Wu Shyon Chen, a WVU alumnus and founder and chairman of Ho Tun Industries based in Taipei, Taiwan; Charlene Marshall, former Morgantown mayor and member of the West Virginia House of Delegates; and Doug Van Scoy, a WVU alumnus and noted investor.

A group selfie is the best selfie

Breaking the Internet

The Class of 2015 probably thought they'd seen the last of assignments and exams. They were wrong.

President Gee presented them with one, quirky final test: To "break the Internet."

At each of the six ceremonies Gee attended, he asked graduates to take selfies, slap them with #WVUgrad and tweet them out in attempt to get the hashtag trending in Twitter.

The Class of 2015 obliged, and #WVUgrad trended in the Pittsburgh region all weekend.

WVU grads' onslaught of selfies began as early as Thursday with the Mountaineer Send-off. There, some 600 graduates enjoyed decorating their mortarboards, sharing memories in a video booth, wolfing down a West Virginia tradition -- pepperoni rolls -- and singing “Country Roads” with friends and families.

President Gee hosted the first-ever event to bring the Class of 2015 together at the WVU Coliseum one last time – to “have some fun and to celebrate” -- before they begin their new adventures as alumni.

cap creations

Some students attending the sendoff had some specific plans.

Linguistics graduate Maad El-Gali, of Libya, said he loved his time at WVU, and is now on to the University of South Carolina to pursue a Ph.D. and someday teach Arabic to U.S. citizens.

Broadcast journalism graduate Maurice Matthews, of Washington D.C., plans to return home to pursue a career in TV journalism, and said his professors in the Reed College of Media “taught him well, pushed him hard and convinced him he could do anything.” What he loved most about his University experience was meeting people from all over the world and enjoying the diversity that a major university offers.

Sisters Meredith and Amy Rogers, of Virginia Beach, Virginia, did some photo bombing in the booths provided; Meredith was graduating this weekend with a criminology degree; Amy is a 2011 WVU grad who returned to celebrate her sister’s success.  

Dad and son

Proud dad, Tom Ponceroff, and his son, Zach, were seen taking a selfie with Gee. The president signed Tom’s diploma in 1982 and now Zach’s as a business management grad.

Hundreds of other students also had their picture taken with the president as they picked up his special gift to them – Dr. Seuss’ book, "Oh, the Places You'll Go!"

And, just like the beginning of many students' WVU careers – singing "Country Roads" at New Student Welcome – they ended their WVU careers on that very note at the conclusion of each Commencement ceremony.

College conquered. Next up, the world.



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