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One of the most powerful political leaders in California urged Emory & Henry graduates Saturday to envision the world in which they would like to live and then work to create it.
Toni Atkins, majority leader of the California State Assembly, reminded students of what is for them a familiar mantra as she spoke of her own dreams and the course she has established for fulfilling them. She delivered her message to 203 graduates and a large crowd of guests assembled on the south lawn of Memorial Chapel.
“I made it my mantra,” said Atkins, a member of the E&H Class of 1984. “Whether as a career, or a volunteer or through community organizing, I would work towards my dream of creating a world I would want to live in.”
A native of Roanoke, Va., Atkins’ father was a coal miner and construction worker. Her mother was a factory worker and seamstress. They lived in substandard housing without running water or a bathroom. She recalls not having access to healthcare, being looked down upon in school for being poor, and coming out at an early age as a lesbian. “All these things made me dream of and envision a different world,” she said.
Speaking from experience, Atkins said students who graduate from Emory & Henry leave with a foundation and solid skills to help them reach their dreams. “What Emory & Henry gave to me was a deep understanding of how I could function in a world that up until then I thought wasn’t about me. How I could engage and participate fully with meaning and purpose. This place helped me identify direction and purpose.”
Once named by the Democratic Leadership Council in California as a "rising star," Atkins is a former member of the San Diego City Council and a former interim San Diego mayor. Shortly after being elected to the California Assembly in 2010, she was named majority whip. In 2012, she was appointed by the Speaker of the Assembly to serve as majority leader.
Much of her political reputation is built on the successful work she has done on behalf of the disadvantaged communities in San Diego. She fought for and achieved affordable housing in the city's challenging housing market. She has worked successfully on behalf of veterans, the elderly and the homeless while remaining focused on fiscal responsibility.
As interim mayor, she earned high praise for her management expertise, her work ethic and her ability to organize disparate factions of the community. She also earned national press attention as the first openly gay leader of a major U.S. city.
Atkins urged graduates to believe all good things were possible for them and their world. “Don’t think that it is impossible for you to achieve that vision -- I could never have predicted I would end up where I am today. I don’t think I even knew such a path existed.”
Graduates and guests also heard from senior orator Rayce Lamb of Hendersonville, N.C., who spoke of an ongoing battle for social justice during a time of great political polarization and “when religion is considered an enemy rather than an ally. He asked his fellow graduates “to go forth from this place knowing that we still have a lot of work to do.”
Natalie Hudok of Huttonsville, W.Va. delivered the master’s oration, encouraging fellow graduate students to transform their educations into “something worthwhile” for others. “Every day let’s work to make this world better. Let’s not be afraid to let our light out …We never know who will be depending on it.”
In addition to handing out undergraduate and graduate degrees, Emory & Henry honored Joe P. Johnson, a long-serving delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and a member of the E&H Class of 1957, with an honorary doctorate degree in humane letters. A former president of the E&H Board of Trustees, Johnson served in the House of Delegates from 1965 to 1969 and again from 1989 to the present. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Virginia Community College System, the Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon and the Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center in Abingdon.
Six graduating seniors also were given special awards. Alex Clement of Marion, Va., was awarded The Byars Medal of Science; Allie Firebaugh of Glen Allen, Va., was honored with the Eleanor Gibson Via Science Award for Women;Yancey Wilmoth of Glade Spring received the Senior Service Award; of Kingsport, Tenn., was honored with the Snavely Senior Scholarship Prize for the highest academic average; and David Ross Ellis of Abingdon and Mary Beth Tignor of Lebanon received Outstanding Senior awards.