Focus on your goals, Longwood graduates told

Published 7:49 am Monday, May 20, 2024

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The Farmville Herald

Joan Johns Cobbs received the letter in 1955, just flat out being told no. She and her childhood best friend, Edwilda Allen Isaac, had applied to what was then Longwood College and both were rejected, based on the color of their skin.

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“We often wondered what our lives would have been like had we been able to go to Longwood,” Cobbs said. “However, despite the obstacles, both of us were able to have successful careers.”

This past weekend, Cobbs received what she was denied those many years ago, getting a juris doctor degree from Longwood and delivering the commencement speech.

She wanted students to understand that success isn’t just measured by how much money you have or the number of promotions you receive. Instead, she said, you need to think about what impact your actions have. How are you affecting the world around you?

“As you embark on this journey of life I implore you to commit to the values of honesty, integrity, empathy, diversity and equity,” Cobbs said. “Remember that real success is not measured solely by your personal achievements, but by the impact you have on the lives of others.”

She pointed to the impact of her sister, Barbara Rose Johns, who at the age of 16 led a strike at Moton High in 1951. Cobbs was a plaintiff, along with her sister, in the court case Davis v. School Board of Prince Edward County, which was later merged with several other cases to become Brown v. Board of Education.

Cobbs spoke of the adversities she faced and told graduates to never let anyone discourage them from reaching their goals or realizing their full potential.


Here in Farmville, this month marks several anniversaries. It’s the 70th anniversary of that landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which desegregated American schools. This week also marks the 60th anniversary of Griffin v. County School Board of Prince Edward, which found Prince Edward’s decision after Brown to close schools violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

And so, during a historic month, more than 1,000 students gathered at Longwood on Saturday, May 18. Originally planned for an outdoor ceremony, Longwood President W. Taylor Revely IV acknowledged the move to an indoor venue was because this class — which arrived on campus in the fall of 2020 in the midst of the pandemic — had already missed out on too much and he didn’t want the threat of lightning to jeopardize the momentous occasion.

“I want you to be together for this moment,” he said.

Reveley described the Class of 2024 as a historic generational class and a historic class for Longwood. The graduates were born in the shadow of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, had their childhood upended by the financial crash of 2008, graduated from high school in the still early months of Covid and now are graduating from college facing a world beset with unease.

“And yet, what shines through is your optimism, your excitement for the future, your care for one another and your can-do spirit,” Reveley said. “Longwood, this honored and beautiful place that we love, has reinforced those good instincts and virtues. Our joy in these fulcrum years has been seeing you through. We are excited for the great deeds ahead, wise as you will have become, so full of experience.”

Rector Katharine Bond ’98, in her last year of service on the Board of Visitors, asked graduates to participate in one final group exercise at the beginning of her remarks. She had them take a selfie in their regalia and then told them to send it to two people: one person who did not believe in them and one person who did. She said to send the same message to both: “I could not have made it here without you, thank you.”

“The only people who can hold you back are the ones you allow to do so,” Bond said. “By contrast, when you are determined to prove them wrong, even the naysayers can motivate and inspire your greatness. Forgiveness, grace and gratitude will set you free and allow you to accomplish even more than you can imagine, but all that we on the board know that you are capable of.”


In welcoming fellow graduates, Senior Class President Gabrielle Sehlhorst ’24 talked about their transformation into citizen leaders committed to lifelong learning during their years at Longwood. She encouraged her classmates to be humble enough to ask for help and advice when needed, and to understand that sometimes failure is inevitable.

“Life is like (the game) Jenga, when the stack falls on the ground, you are motivated to try again, maybe from another perspective,” she said. “If you take your time, go slow, you can accomplish anything.”

Over Commencement weekend, Longwood recognized a total of 1182 degrees: including 374 awarded at Friday’s graduate ceremony and 643 awarded at Saturday’s undergraduate ceremony.

At Saturday’s undergraduate ceremony, five seniors shared the Sally Barksdale Hargrett ’21 Prize for Academic Excellence, Longwood’s top academic award given annually at Commencement: Abigail Grace Bowden ’24 of Portsmouth (B.S., liberal studies), Sandrah Marie Burrill ’24 of Concord (B.S., psychology), Rachel Grace Cannon ’24 of Chesapeake (B.A., English, B.A., modern languages), Kendall Grace Magee ’24 of Glen Allen (B.S., psychology) and Emily Christine Robertson ’24 of South Hill (B.A., communication studies).

Katya Elisabeth Pratt Mayer ’24 of Falls Church received the prestigious Dan Daniel Senior Award for Scholarship and Citizenship, which recognizes the Longwood senior who exhibits a commitment to a life of public service and leadership. Mayer, who received a bachelor of science in business administration, was a founding member and president of Lancers Vote, an initiative founded to increase civic engagement on campus by promoting the importance of voting. Mayer has been a leader within the Student Government Association and served as statewide chairperson of the Student Leadership Council for Virginia21.

Dr. David Carkenord, professor of psychology, was awarded the Student-Faculty Recognition Award, annually given to one faculty member for professional excellence and service to students.