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Southern Virginia University
Friends and family members of SVU graduates line up to take pictures during commencement exercises.

BUENA VISTA, Va. – Braving brisk winds and drizzling rain, 124 graduating seniors enthusiastically received bachelor's degrees during Southern Virginia University's 144th annual commencement exercises, held outdoors recently on the picturesque campus on Buena Vista's University Hill.

The Saturday morning commencement service actually began under sunny skies, as Dr. Josephine Arogyasami, biology professor and SVU's longest-tenured professor, led the academic processional bearing the red oak mace that symbolizes the independence and authority of the SVU Knights.

Dr. Richard Whitehead, acting university president and vice president of institutional advancement, welcomed a crowd of nearly 1,000 students and their friends and family members, noting that it is the 16th commencement since responsibility for SVU was assumed by a group of Latter-day Saints who have turned the one-time Southern Seminary into the only independent liberal arts college intended for Mormons "and those who share our values."

Elder Paul K. Sybrowsky, released from the Second Quorum of the Seventy of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in October 2011, will assume his duties as SVU president on June 1. According to Dr. Whitehead, President Sybrowsky will continue SVU's stated mission to "prepare leader-servants in the workplace and the world, in the community and the church, and in the home."

Commencement speaker David C. Clark, CEO of Synergy Companies and a member of SVU's National Advisory Council, encouraged the graduates to focus their lives on the things that matter most.

"Get away for a few moments," he urged the Class of 2012. "Ask the Lord what he sees happening in the areas that matter most: with your family, with your future children, with your gifts and talents, with your responsibilities to your fellow man and to making a positive difference in your community."

The commencement also featured the conferral of an honorary degree on Dr. Rodney K. Smith, who served as SVU president from 2004 to 2011. In conferring the degree, Dr. Whitehead pointed out that under Dr. Smith's direction, "the university grew its enrollment 26 percent, raised more than $25 million in donations and in 2010 received candidacy status from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges."

By the time the SVU graduates began making their way up the stairs outside historic Main Hall to receive their diplomas, the once-sunny skies had turned dark, with rain clouds blowing in to provide scattered precipitation and rolling thunder. But that didn't diminish the vigor of 124 new SVU alumni, who bounded up the stairs as their names were enthusiastically read, or the enjoyment of audience members who applauded and cheered each name appreciatively.

"We came here as high school graduates, relatively unaware of our place and potential," said class valedictorian Frank Skyler Skeen. "We leave as leader-servants to the world."

Suddenly inclement weather notwithstanding.