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Congressman McKinley Offers Wheeling University Grads Find Courage to Sing Their Song

WHEELING, W.Va., May 1 – U.S. Congressman David McKinley, R-W.Va., told the Wheeling University Class of 2021 that as they take the next step in their life’s journey “to find the courage to sing their song.”

University President Ginny R. Favede conferred more than 200 undergraduate, graduate, and doctoral degrees during Wheeling University’s 63rd Commencement exercises, held Saturday, May 1, on Bishop Schmitt Field.

McKinley, a member of the U.S. House of Representatives since January 2011, served as the Commencement speaker and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University for his work on behalf of the people of West Virginia. He said his ties to the University run deep – his wife, Mary, brother-in-law are both graduates, and his grandmother was a ‘house mother’ at Sara Tracy Hall.

The U.S. Representative from West Virginia’s First District said he was reminded of a sermon he heard by a Baptist pastor 33 years ago. McKinley said the pastor used a metaphor that “goals and aspirations are like songs trapped inside of each of us. For each of us, our songs are unique. But we must first find the confidence and courage to sing our songs.”

He noted that the faculty has prepared the graduates for the next chapter of life’s journey. “But you must take the next step out in the world. Fewer and fewer people are willing to take risks, unwilling to reach that higher bar.”

McKinley recalled the pastor’s message – “What keeps my song from being sung? Is it past hurts, deep fears, a timid tongue? There will be times when you doubt yourself. There will be times when you fail, and that’s okay. But you should not fear failure because it’s through these challenges and failures you grow as a person … you grow the most.”

He told the graduates to take risks and embrace uncertainty and “to reach down inside your soul to find your song and to sing it. But, don’t let fear of failure stand in your way.”

The Class of 2021 Valedictorian Kayla Smith, an exercise science major from Shadyside, Ohio, said, “It is kind of ironic that I am standing up here and giving this speech today, because between the years 2007 to 2015, my mom served as a faculty member and eventually the department chair of the nursing program here at Wheeling. I would always look at her and say, ‘Mom, I am never going to go to that school.’ I mostly said it because, one, I was acting like a brat, and two, who wants to ride to school with their mom when they’re in college anyway?”

She told her classmates they endured much during their time at the University – change in leadership, a worldwide pandemic, the loss of “a well-loved and respected professor, Dr. Ken Rastall … We preserved and are finishing strong.”

On behalf of her classmates, Smith offered thanks to “the people that have gotten us here today.”

Smith thanked the faculty and administration for their support, guidance, and “and providing us with an education that has set us up for success. We wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for the selfless professors who devoted countless hours to ensure that we exceed expectations and achieve our dreams.”

Secondly, she thanked the families. “I know that my parents spent countless hours listening to me complain about the exams I had to take and the assignments I had to finish, but they were always in my corner cheering me on, and I can’t thank them enough for that. So, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and siblings, thank you for the unconditional love and support you’ve given us through some of our most difficult times.

Wheeling University, Smith said, allowed the graduates to build friendships that will last long after Saturday. She said to her friends, “You all have given me memories that will last a lifetime, and I couldn’t imagine a better group of friends to have supported me the way you all did.”

In closing, the valedictorian said to her classmates, “Attending Wheeling has provided us with knowledge about life and the importance of serving others, giving us the ability not to fear the future, but instead face challenges and obstacles head-on. In the Bible, Jeremiah 29 verse 11 says, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ A few short years ago, we came here with dreams and aspirations, but today we are leaving with even bigger ambitions. We are the future doctors, nurses, educators, politicians, engineers, and everything in between. It is now our time to contribute to society and make a lasting impact on the world.”

President Favede could not let the graduates leave without offering them a special message.

The self-proclaimed “helicopter mom” to 800 students told the Class of 2021 that Saturday was a celebration of the “mark you’re going to leave on the world. Your class has endured more in one academic year than many people have endured in their lifetime.”

In a year like none other, she noted the class experienced shutdown, lockdown, COVID testing, contact tracing and quarantine, the cancellation of breaks and dances, and the loss of many experiences “that seniors in any other given year would have had.”

President Favede told the graduates that their education “is rooted in the mission to inspire students to learn, lead and serve in a diverse changing world. Now, more than ever, you are poised to answer this call to action. You possess the necessary tools to understand varying perspectives and empathize deeply with others while also possessing the courage to call out discrimination and stand in solidarity with the marginalized.

“To say you have persevered doesn’t quite describe your experience over the past year … I love each of you deeply. I am proud of you, of who you have become. I am grateful you stayed here with me over the past two years. That you chose to remain when others left … You stayed, and you helped all of us save this beautiful, special University.”

Finally, President Favede left the graduates with words from prophet Micah – And what does the Lord require of you? To seek justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.

“Seek justice, love mercy, walk humbly with your God. Your life is an invaluable, priceless gift …find gratitude for all you have, stay open to all that remains possible, and remain diligent in the pursuit of both personal success and selfless significance. Be who God meant you to be, and you will set the world on fire.”

PHOTO CAPTION: 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 Commencement Speaker, U.S. Congressman David McKinley.