UVA President Jim Ryan told the nearly 250 members of the College at Wise Class of 2019 to own their mistakes, work hard daily, focus on the team, never give up and remember to give back. If the graduates remember those lessons, Ryan said, they would hold UVa-Wise in their hearts and make the most of what the poet Mary Oliver aptly calls their “one wild and precious life.”

Ryan shared stories of endurance and hard work that brought the UVA Men’s Basketball team to a NCAA National Championship after a loss in the first round of the championship the previous year as a means of explaining the five lessons to the crowd gathered at the David J. Prior Center.

“I do want to talk about some of the lessons I learned watching this team make its improbable run through the tournament,” he said. “Importantly, these are lessons that apply no matter what team you’re a fan of—or even if you couldn’t care less about basketball. They are, above all, lessons about life, and ones that I hope will serve you well as you enter the next phase of yours.”

The team was known for making one of the biggest blunders in college basketball history, but reversed it all this year.

“When you leave here, you will likely make mistakes,” he told the graduates. “But by owning your mistakes, you rob them of their power. And by learning from them, to paraphrase Donald Davis, you can buy yourself a ticket to a place you couldn’t have reached any other way.”

The second lesson Ryan delivered was for the graduates to work hard every day.

“Wise was built by generations of coal miners who worked long hours, often in harsh conditions, to make a living and provide for their families,” Ryan said. “Even today, that work ethic is contagious—it’s hard for anyone to come here and not catch it. I’m talking about the biochemistry students who barricade themselves all night in the Leonard Sandridge Science Center. I’m also talking about student athletes like Donovan Montague, Sydney Steinberg, and Kellen Larkin who wake up before dawn and often come home after midnight, but who still manage to make the dean’s list, take part in the Day of Service, run for office, plan events, and show up at research presentations to support their classmates. “

Ryan urged the Class of 2019 to keep putting in the hard work.

“My advice to you today is to keep putting in the work. “It’s important because, in your life, there will be people who underestimate you because of where you’re from, or what they think they know about you,” he said. “As someone who grew up in a blue-collar town and was a first-generation college student, I know this to be true. But I also know that if you stay focused, you won’t just be able to hold your own, you’ll be able to get ahead. As the old adage says, you will find that the harder you work, the luckier you become.”

The third lesson Ryan gave the graduates was to remember it is not about them, but it is about the team. He said the word family is the one used most to describe UVa-Wise.

“Ask anyone what makes this place special and you hear one word over and over again: family. Everyone knows—and, more importantly, cares—about everyone else,” he said. “Colton Collins talks about Anita from the cafeteria, who always asks how he’s doing and is quick with a hug when he needs one. Jnauiree Wilson says that, at bigger colleges, nobody really knows the chancellor’s staff. Here, she can go to Huda with anything. And when Bridgette McCarty’s grandmother passed away, professors and friends surprised her by showing up at the funeral.”

Ryan’s fourth lesson was to never give up. He said the Cavaliers won the championship because they never ever thought about giving up.

“I’m sure all of you, at some point, have been told to settle, or even to give up completely,” Ryan said. “I hope you ignore those voices. The fact that you are graduating today means that you’ve already chosen, more than once, not to give up on yourselves. And I hope you never give up on Southwest Virginia, either, because I believe that you should never give up on the people and the places you love. And there is much to love about this place.”

The last lesson Ryan gave was to give back when you succeed. He spoke about a recent bus fire that destroyed much of the UVa-Wise softball equipment as the team was on the way to a game. There were no injuries, but the bus was also destroyed.

“As soon as word got out about the accident, the rest of the community swung into action,” he said. “Whatever people could give, they gave—offering to donate everything from new uniforms to a Chick-fil-A lunch. At the time, UVA had just held a watch event for the title game, so when word reached Charlottesville, our athletic director, Carla Williams, sent $10,000 raised from concessions to the team.”

He said he believes that people should continue to do good even after reaping a harvest.

“This belief is grounded on two principles: first, that with success comes responsibility,” he said. “And second, all of us are only here thanks to the generosity of others. While we may not be able to pay it back directly, we can do our part for someone else. For the rest of your life, and through all your success, I hope you remember to give back, including to this place and to these people who have given you so much.”

Ryan said the same qualities that made the UVA Men’s Basketball team so great are the same ones that make the College at Wise special.

Photos by Earl Neikirk