Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
A Virginia Tech student and his father prepare for graduation ceremonies to be held at Lane Stadium today.
Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
People enter the secure zone of Lane Stadium this morning.
Sam Dean | The Roanoke Times
Graduates file into Lane Stadium at the start of graduation ceremony at Virginia Tech on Friday.
Matt Gentry | The Roanoke Times
Michelle Obama speaks at the Virginia Tech graduation in Blacksburg on Friday.
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Video by Mike Gangloff | The Roanoke Times
Bagpipers play as Tech graduates file toward Rector Field House, where they are being screened as part of today’s security process before marching to their seats on the floor of Lane Stadium.
BLACKSBURG – On a bright, crisp May day at Lane Stadium, Michelle Obama brought happy national attention to Virginia Tech, a university that over the past five years has suffered so much.
On Friday, the assembly celebrated not just the graduation of about 5,000 students, but the courage that sustains communities, institutions and even the nation.
In all about 35,000 people attended the ceremony to honor the Tech Class of 2012, and to hear Obama and her co-speaker, U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., talk about what these graduates have taught the nation and the world.
In the awful moments after the April 16, 2007, many asked “Who will go to Virginia Tech now,” Warner said. “You raised your hand, and said, ‘I will.’ That’s remarkable.”
Many of the undergraduates were the first students to enroll after the shootings and themselves experienced a campus shooting in December when Tech police officer Deriek Crouse was killed nearby the stadium during a traffic stop.
“The nation has watched you, and we have been impressed,” Warner said.
The number of graduates and spectators were larger this year than in years past, with graduates overflowing the 4,200 chairs placed for them on Worsham Field. More than 100 were seated in the stands.
Cheering for the First Lady began as she ascended the podium before the ceremony. Obama traveled to Blacksburg by motorcade from Roanoke.
The first lady told the graduates that commencement speakers are expected to give advice.
“But, to tell you the truth,” Obama said, “you all have so much to teach us.”
Obama said that like much of the nation, she has “been following the journey of this school.”
These students chose, not just a school, but a community.
“But the Hokie community didn’t just happen … all of you created it,” Obama said. “I want you to know you can do it again, no matter where you wind up.
“You’ve shown us, that through service, we can heal ourselves,” Obama said.
By raising a half million dollars for cancer research through Relay for Life and 900 service projects completed this year by students participating in Tech’s Big Event, “you all have helped this community heal,” she said.
She told the story about going to work for a large Chicago law firm, and at 26, then losing her best friend to cancer and her father multiple sclerosis. The grief left her feeling lost, Obama said.
She said she took comfort and direction from the memory of her father, who suffered from the disease, but went to work no matter what at the city water plant to help send his kids to college. In his honor, she left her high-paying job for a nonprofit organization working to mentor young people to become civic leaders. With every student she mentored and every service project she did, Obama “felt myself becoming whole again,” she said.
Both speakers today were the first in their families to go to college, and both took on student loans and worked their way through college, going on to high-profile careers.
And both stressed the importance of ignoring those who would discourage the students’ aspirations.
Warner emphasized the importance of embracing failure as a teacher, saying that his greatest lessons came from losing his first two businesses.
Obama challenged them to focus on the university’s slogan, “Invent the future” by living life on their terms and ignoring those “people who make assumptions about superficial things,” like looks or where they grew up or a tragedy unfolding on their campus.
“We are all so proud of you,” Obama said. “We are all so inspired by you.”
Thousands are milling about Lane Stadium and standing in lines on the Virginia Tech campus this morning with the excitement of graduation mixed with anticipation for the appearance of first lady Michelle Obama.
The 4,200 seats on Lane Stadium’s Worsham Field seem to be filled, and tens of thousands more people continue to enter the stands.
University officials say the stadium has a capacity of about 45,000 people today.
Today’s graduates are going through a security check, then will gather as a group at Rector Field House, before parading into the stadium, where the first lady is scheduled to speak today at noon.
Tailgating is in full swing in some parking lots around the stadium, too.
There is a heavy presence of law enforcement. And some have taken to referring to the first lady as “Mish,” this morning.
The excitement generated by Michelle Obama’s visit is obvious.
“I love her,” said Mary Schanbach of Damascus. “I love Obama.”
Schanbach had traveled with a cousin whose son is graduating, but said she would not have come if Obama were not speaking. Waiting for the ceremony to begin, she said she hoped the First Lady will speak “about education, about the election, about everything.”
A little ways down the stands, Mikala Michalski and Mary Swim, both biological systems engineering graduates who’d opted not to go through the security screening needed to sit on the stadium’s field, said they were hoping for a non-political speech from Obama.
Swim said she is a Republican “but I’m not opposed to her in any way.”
“I think it’s quite an honor” to have Obama speak, Swim said. “It’ll be nice to say we saw her at our graduation.”
Michalski agreed. Describing herself as an undecided voter, she said she doubted today would make up her mind about this fall’s presidential election.
In a long line at a concessions booth, Wes Russell of Stafford said he had no problem with Obama’s programs or campaigns, but hoped this will be her last year to deliver graduation speeches as first lady.
“I tend to be more conservative,” he said.
Still, Russell said, having Obama speak “certainly is an honor … It reflects the importance, at least to us the parents, of this event.”
Sean Simons is graduating today with a bachelor’s degree in English degree. Simons, from Slidell, Tex., said he’ll sit in the Lane Stadium stands with friends – instead of sitting on the field. He said he was only attending the ceremony because of Michelle Obama.
A friend of Simons’, Lindsay Taylor, said she traveled from Charlotte, N.C., to watch some friends graduate and to hear Obama, but only made the trip because of the first lady.
“It’s a lot for this little town,” she said.
Although her trip to Tech coincides with the beginning of her husband’s presidential re-election campaign and although Virginia is considered a political swing state, Obama will not use her speech to stump for her husband, spokeswoman Semonti Stephens said.
Instead, the first lady will talk about resilience and why she chose to speak at Tech, as well give some advice to the graduates, Stephens said.
The White House has said Obama chose Tech because of the resilience the university community has shown in difficult times.
Stephens said she could not comment on when or how the first lady would travel to Blacksburg.
But she is expected to fly into Roanoke Regional Airport and travel by motorcade to Tech.
For weeks, rumors have swirled that Interstate 81 and even I-581 might be closed for the first lady’s motorcade.
Virginia Department of Transportation spokesman Jason Bond said Wednesday that no detours are planned on either road and that significant delays are not expected.
Previous story: Virginia Tech battens down for graduation, Michelle Obama address (May 10, 2012)
Panorama inside Lane Stadium
Panorama by Mike Gangloff | The Roanoke Times