UVA Celebrates the Class of 2021’s Achievements and Resilience
By Caroline Newman, Anne E. Bromley and Matt Kelly
Over the weekend, the University of Virginia honored the Class of 2021 in five Final Exercises ceremonies that, though more numerous than usual, were no less festive. In fact, each day felt even more celebratory coming after a year of restrictions, losses and worries related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
To accommodate public health guidelines, UVA conferred about 7,500 degrees across five separate ceremonies over Friday, Saturday and Sunday, grouped by school. Each celebration began with the traditional procession down the Lawn, where rows of graduates in caps and gowns strode down the Rotunda stairs and through the Academical Village, many with colorful balloons in hand (later donated to UVA Children’s patients.)
Unlike in former years, however, the procession continued all the way to Scott Stadium, where the ceremonies were held to allow for physical distancing. The mile-long procession was punctuated with blue-and-orange balloon arches and celebratory signs.
Once in Scott Stadium, graduates and their families heard from President Jim Ryan, Rector James B. Murray and keynote speaker Alexis Ohanian, a 2005 UVA graduate who co-founded the social media aggregation site Reddit during his time at UVA and now runs his own venture capital fund. Deans and faculty members from each school also spoke, along with Patricia Epps, chair of UVA’s Alumni Association Board of Managers.
In total, UVA conferred 4,505 baccalaureate degrees over the weekend, 242 of which were earned in three years, plus five in two years. In addition, the University awarded 467 first professional degrees and 2,522 graduate degrees, including 2,183 master’s degrees, 306 Doctor of Philosophy degrees, 10 Doctor of Education degrees, three Education Specialist degrees, 17 Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees and three Doctor of Juridical Science degrees. Nearly 600 graduating students became the first in their families to graduate from college.
Below, find more details from the ceremonies, as well as recaps of each day’s events, including:
- Remarks from President Jim Ryan and Rector James B. Murray.
- Keynote speech from Alexis Ohanian.
- Special performances round out the ceremonies.
- Friday’s morning and afternoon ceremonies.
- Saturday’s morning and afternoon ceremonies.
- Sunday morning’s ceremony.
Ryan welcomed graduates to the stadium ceremony each day by noting all of the obstacles they had overcome to get there, especially during the last 15 months of the pandemic.
“I have to be honest with you: I feel like this moment is a bit miraculous. Not because you’re graduating – we all expected that. But given all of the stops and starts we have had to endure, the plans made and the plans scrapped, hopes raised and hopes dashed, just to get to this moment,” Ryan said. “Believe me when I say I could not be happier or more grateful to be here, right now, with all of you.”
Ryan thanked the faculty and staff who made Final Exercises possible this year, and asked the Class of 2021 to stand and join him in a big round of applause for the family and friends, in the stands and watching from home, who helped them reach this point. He also, of course, thanked the graduates themselves. (Read Ryan’s prepared remarks.)
“I want to say a personal thanks for your patience, for your strength, and for your service and leadership, especially this past year,” Ryan said. “I have seen this class step up in countless ways that have brought joy, support and comfort to your classmates and to our entire community. For your selfless actions, generosity, humor and creativity, which brought light to Grounds even during our most challenging moments: thank you. It has been a true privilege to serve as your president.”
During each ceremony, Ryan conferred degrees upon the candidates presented to him by each dean, asking them to stand and be honored. At the conclusion of each ceremony, Ryan left the graduates with a charge and a promise. He asked them to “remember the feeling of being here, in this place, with these people, and carry it with you” – the friendship, the mentorship, the learning and exploration, the connections and bridges built with people from all walks of life.
“If you remember all of this, I have no doubt that you will carry the very best of this place with you as you face, with courage and purpose, the road ahead, which will be, at various turns, beautiful, tragic, joyous, challenging and magical,” Ryan said in his parting words. “And should that road ever lead you back to Charlottesville – and I very much hope it will – please know that we will leave the lights on for you.”
Murray, UVA’s rector, spoke after Ryan’s first remarks and introduced the keynote speaker. Among other lessons, Murray urged the graduates to be mindful of how they spend their time and never stop learning. (Read the rector’s full remarks.)
“Make sound choices with your time. That is my best advice,” Murray said. “Fix a portion of your time for more learning. UVA helped you get to this point, but you really cannot stop anymore. There’s no walking away – not anymore – no walking away from new things you’ll need to know, to learn, to understand.”
And, Murray said, share that knowledge with the places and people who made you who you are.
“Come back to Charlottesville; you are welcome here forever,” he said. “Circle back. You must. And tell us what things you’ve seen, the glories of your life. Bring us new lessons, new knowledge. Tell us stories.”
2005 graduate Alexis Ohanian served as keynote speaker for each of the five ceremonies, pre-recording remarks for the graduates. Ohanian co-founded the social news aggregation site Reddit, which he began working on while at UVA. Reddit took off rapidly and is now valued around $6 billion.
Ohanian has since focused on venture capital. He co-founded seed-stage venture fund Initialized Capital, which has more than $770 million under management and invests in companies like Coinbase and Instacart. In late 2020, Ohanian launched his own venture fund, Seven Seven Six, which he describes as supporting ventures focused on people, cultures and community.
An active presence on social media, Ohanian also been an outspoken advocate for racial justice and equity. He resigned his seat on Reddit’s board after George Floyd’s murder last summer, urging the company to use his resignation as an opportunity to add more diverse voices to the board, and has pledged his future earnings from Reddit to organizations serving the Black community or fighting racial injustice. Ohanian also urged Reddit to ban hate communities on the site and has led conversations about how social media and tech companies can fight hate speech and discrimination.
Additionally, Ohanian is a firm advocate for federally mandated paid family leave. He hosts a podcast, “Business Dad,” talking about how he and fellow fathers balance business and family life. Ohanian is married to tennis superstar Serena Williams and they have a young daughter, Olympia.
Ohanian began his remarks by talking about his own time at UVA, when he had decided to start Reddit after an epiphany at a Charlottesville Waffle House, to where had fled after walking out of the LSAT.
“I decided I probably should not be a lawyer if I walked out of the LSAT, and instead I needed to start a startup,” he said. “If it weren’t for being hungry, I wouldn’t be here.”
Looking back at his UVA graduation 16 years ago, what stood out to Ohanian most was his mother. He did not know it at the time, but she would be diagnosed with terminal brain cancer shortly afterward and died when Ohanian was 23. She had immigrated to America in part to give her only son a better education, and “she was so proud, you’d have thought she were the one graduating,” Ohanian said.
“I never could have guessed she’d be diagnosed with terminal brain cancer just a few months into starting Reddit, but all the very best parts of me, and any of the good things I have contributed to Reddit, or anything really, they are thanks to her,” he said.
Reflecting on the early loss of his mother, Ohanian urged students to “invest in people and experiences,” because those are the things that truly make a life.
“Take that time to hug, to appreciate every single person who helped get you here. You will not regret it,” he said. “Those people and the experiences they had, and you had with them, those are the things that matter.”
Ohanian also drew on his history degree from UVA to look back at past pandemics and the tremendous changes that came afterward. The bubonic plague, he reminded graduates, helped spark the Renaissance. The Spanish flu in 1918 gave way to cultural change in the Roaring 20s, as more people gained the right to vote, Black jazz musicians took the world by storm, and mass communication was born, at the same time as the Ku Klux Klan grew, and later, the Great Depression and World War II hit.
“Humans did that — all the good and all the bad. Let’s learn from both so that we can do more good,” Ohanian said. “If there is one thing that I’d like to instill in all of you, it’s that no one is perfect. I’m not perfect and, sorry to say, neither are you.”
We should not lionize people or institutions, Ohanian said, but rather recognize their flaws and find opportunities to change. If something is not perfect, he pointed out, “That means another imperfect human — like you — has the power to make it better or replace it entirely.”
“The sooner you start looking at the world this way, the sooner you’ll be in a position to radically change things, to improve things, to build better systems,” he said. “Critically looking at things — and criticizing them — is a part of the process, but don’t let that be where it ends. Start building better systems and use those observations to inform how you do it. Keep asking why.”
Ohanian believes community will be a defining theme of this new era we are all entering, as the COVID-19 pandemic likely draws to a close. He urged graduates to resist the pull of a more fractured and tribal world, and instead work to build more authentic and just communities, both offline and online.
“I encourage all of you to serve as the architects of this next period in our collective history,” he said. “As someone who was at the forefront of building digital communities, I’m intimately aware of the improvements that need to be made and I feel a deep responsibility to your generation that we continue to pursue them.”
Ohanian especially asked graduates to focus on building community as the world emerges from the pandemic and reckons with the many challenges it brought or exposed.
“There is going to be an amazing time, over the next 10, 15, 20 years, as we see what happens, with this new technology, with the power of community, to hopefully create a lot more good,” he said. “I don’t see any other path forward. We have to figure it out. We have to make it better – for my daughter, for her entire generation, for all of us to be able to not just survive, but thrive together, as a community, accepting the fact that we are all deeply flawed but working to bring about the very best in each and every one of us.”
Ohanian ended his speech with heartfelt thanks and congratulations, as well as a sweet guest appearance from his daughter Olympia, who joined her dad in a hearty “Wahoowa!”
In addition to Ohanian (and Olympia), the Scott Stadium Hoovision video board had a few more surprises in store for graduates as three special guests offered congratulations, each in her own unique way.
First, Rita Dove, Henry Hoyns Professor of Creative Writing at UVA, debuted her new poem, “Daffodil,” walking among UVA’s own gardens as she did. “No matter whether you are coming home, staying home or preparing to leave wherever or whatever home is, this poem is for all of you,” Dove said. “Congratulations, Class of 2021.”
Next, singer Brandi Carlile surprised the crowd with a rendition of her song “The Joke,” accompanied by photos of the Class of 2021’s time at UVA, images that included vigils, national championships, big group celebrations and, more recently, smaller, masked gatherings and new ways of serving and being together.
Finally, alumna and broadcast journalist Katie Couric helped conclude the ceremony with “The Good Old Song,” which Couric played on the piano as graduates and their families swayed and sang along.
Friday’s bifurcated ceremonies featured the Schools of Medicine, Education and Human Development and Nursing and the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy in the morning; and in the afternoon, the schools of Engineering, Architecture, Data Science and Continuing and Professional Studies.
Many of the speakers reminded the students to be thankful for those who supported them on their academic journey – parents, peers, mentors – and to remember their contributions.
David Wilkes, outgoing dean of the School of Medicine, reminded the newly minted doctors of the hardships they endured beyond the usual rigors of medical school, thanks to the pandemic, and praised their resilience.
“If you can flourish in times of such uncertainties, then there is no limit to what you can achieve,” Wilkes said.
Robert Pianta, dean of the School of Education and Human Development, took up the theme.
“All of our students showed a truly remarkable amount of commitment, compassion and resilience this past year,” he said, “and your doing so not only helped you get through to these past months – you lifted others as well. One of my greatest pleasures professionally and personally is knowing of your commitment to the well-being of others; it gives me great hope for the future.”
Pam Cipriano, dean of the School of Nursing, said the pandemic left an indelible mark on the graduates’ personal histories, in ways they could have never imagined.
“Graduation is a time of transition,” Cipriano said. “For many of you, your identity is changing from student to professional. You may have been thinking about moving on from a somewhat care-free existence to one with new responsibilities and obligations. And now, with great hope that life will go back to what you knew as normal, you won’t really be returning to your ‘old life,’ but instead, are moving on to the next step in your professional journey.”
Batten School Dean Ian Solomon made a musical analogy. “As the fourth dean to address you, I’m thinking about the jazz ensembles I used to watch in Johannesburg, or New York, or Chicago, where each musician gets a turn to solo, improvising and embellishing the melodic line over a familiar progression of chords. All part of the same music, adding their own interpretation.”
He reminded the grads that because of COVID-19, they, too, had to improvise. “I think we can agree that over the past year or so, the old scripts, and plans, and preparations, did not apply,” Solomon said. “The lyrics we might have expected to sing, the blueprints we expected to build, the plans we expected to execute, had to be thrown out. COVID-19 burned up the script, upset the rhythm of our lives, rearranged the chord patterns, the time signatures and the harmonic understanding of our lives. And we have all been asked to improvise, to become the jazz artists of our own lives.”
On Friday afternoon, Craig Benson, the outgoing dean of the Engineering School, took note of his surroundings and sprinkled his talk with sports metaphors
“In many ways, your presence here makes you as tough as the players who normally dominate this field,” Benson said. “You tackled too many obstacles to count. You kept bringing your ‘A’ game, even at times when perhaps it didn’t feel like you’d win. Now you are the MVPs of the greatest season you’ve had so far.”
Ila Berman, outgoing dean of the School of Architecture, reminded all of the graduates that, like architects, they get to rethink, reimagine and remake the world and make real what once was merely virtual.
“All of our disciplines at UVA enable this, not only by advancing knowledge and skills, but by fostering creativity and innovation and building the capacity for imagination, in order to transform and improve the world around us,” Berman said. “The only things that limit our ability to realize this transformation are the limits that we carry around inside us. These are the limits that we overcome through an education that inspires us to dream, to imagine, and to create.”
Alex Hernandez, dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies, linked the work of his school’s graduates with his own father’s achievements, citing students who held children on their laps while attending online classes, or wrote papers after working a full shifts.
“If you met my father, you may not know that he did not earn his bachelor’s on the first try – he stopped out,” Hernandez said. “But a university built a new pathway to bring him back to school so he could earn his first of three degrees. That program changed my dad’s life, it changed my life and it changed my children’s lives.
“To create opportunity, our communities need more than one path to reach their dreams,” he said. “As a public university, we build ladders of opportunity that all people can climb.”
Dean Philip E. Bourne of the School of Data Science extoled the fortitude, perseverance, loyalty and respect of the graduates, which he said would serve them well in the future.
“Now is the time for you to celebrate,” Bourne said. “Celebrate your success; celebrate the ability of our society to pull together and begin to solve a global crisis and, above all else, celebrate one another. When the glasses are empty, the balloons deflated and families apart, think to the future – not only your future, but the future belonging to everyone on this planet.”
The largest of UVA’s 12 schools, the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, celebrated Final Exercises in two ceremonies Saturday under warm, summery conditions with lots of smiles, bouquets and balloons.
Nearly 2,500 undergraduates and 375 graduate students waved and blew kisses as they processed from the Rotunda, down the Lawn and through the Grounds to reach Scott Stadium.
The graduates and guests listened to President Jim Ryan and Arts & Sciences Dean Ian B. Baucom share their observations and wisdom about these past four years.
Ryan mentioned that graduating members of the men’s lacrosse, baseball and women’s golf teams had competitions Saturday and couldn’t attend the ceremony. In the afternoon, he had an update: the Cavalier men’s lacrosse team beat Georgetown University, 14-3, to advance to the NCAA Tournament semifinals.
Parents and family members began staking out their places in Scott Stadium before 8 a.m. — two hours before the first procession left the Rotunda – even though there was plenty of space with physical distancing measures in place.
John Gess, who traveled from Denver, said he was glad he and his son Tristan could enjoy graduation in person. “It’s very important to have this ceremony. It’s once in a lifetime.”
Another graduate’s parents, Todd and Deirdre Hardiman, left Fairfax at 5:30 a.m. They said their daughter Hannah and a friend of hers both endured surgery for chronic illnesses during the pandemic, showing “resilience in action.” With compromised immune systems, both students were extra careful to avoid COVID. The Hardimans said they appreciated the support from professors and the University’s measures to keep students safe.
They also said their daughter’s exposure to research and working in UVA’s “Baby Lab,” which studies infants’ brain processes underpinning social interaction and cognition, gave her great experience for her next step. A double major in cognitive science and psychology, Hannah Hardiman is headed to a fellowship with the National Institutes of Health.
Among the graduates were almost 600 students who, four years ago, piloted Arts & Sciences’ new interdisciplinary curriculum to fulfill their general education requirements.
Baucom recalled addressing students in the Class of 2021 shortly after their arrival on Grounds. “Ten days earlier, a white supremacist mob had invaded that Lawn, before besieging the city,” he said. “We needed you to renew us; we needed you to refute the lie of racism and choose the courage of free thought in place of the cowardice of the closed mind.”
Picking up on Rita Dove’s themes of planting and finding home in her poem, “Daffodil,” Baucom said, “I want to say just a few things about home and about Grounds: about how this place has become your home, about how you’ve dug into it, what you’ve planted here, and what we hope we’ve planted in you. …
“You have been the living expression of an idea – the idea that democracy cannot live without knowledge; that democracy cannot live without the free exchange of ideas; that democracy cannot live without you, without what you believe, without what you have come to know, without what you will argue for, without the arc of history you will resolve to bend.”
Each year, the Z Society usually presents the Edgar F. Shannon Award to one undergraduate and one graduate student from each school within the University. The award is given to recognize these individuals’ incredible academic success and passionate extracurricular involvements.
Baucom announced that given the unprecedented challenges of the past year, the award would be presented differently this year: to the entire 2021 class of undergrads and graduate students.
Poetry marked another segment of the Arts & Sciences ceremony, with students from the English department’s Area Program in Poetry Writing reciting a poem they collaboratively composed, at each of Saturday’s two ceremonies.
Kasey M. Roper in the morning and Elliott Carter in the afternoon read the poem, “Bridges,” on behalf of their fellow students, which ends with this stanza:
It’s time to go somewhere new –
but leaving’s a loaded word.
The next time I call a new place home,
I’ll remember the mornings I crossed Beta.
I’ll search for bridges that lead
to new hellos; to new names –
and make home wherever I am.
Sunday: Law and Business Graduates Cap Off the Weekend
On Sunday, the final day of UVA’s 2021 Final Exercises, graduates from the School of Law, the Darden School of Business and the McIntire School of Commerce celebrated their degrees.
Draped with stoles designating their school and various honors, the law and business graduates filed into Scott Stadium and filled out rows of chairs, shouting excitedly as they recognized family members in the stands. Each group roared loudly as Ryan recognized them when he took the podium.
In addition to remarks from Ryan, Murray and Ohanian, Sunday’s ceremony included congratulatory videos from each school and remarks from their respective deans, including the announcement of school awards.
Speaking first, Law Dean Risa Goluboff emphasized the “skill, stamina and grit” graduates needed in their journeys to the stadium Sunday, like the athletes and rock stars who often perform in such venues.
Even beyond the rigorous challenges of law school, “you have been tested as our society and the law itself has been tested – over and over again – by a pandemic and sweeping changes it has imposed; by a national reckoning on race, racism and inequity; by contentious politics and contentious elections; and by violence far and near,” said Goluboff, the Arnold H. Leon Professor of Law and a professor of history.
“Throughout it all, you showed yourselves to be smart and resilient, passionate and rigorous, committed to learning and to kindness,” she said. “You were models of engaged citizenship, reasoned debate and the search for truth within a community of respect and empathy. You are models not only for this law school, or any law school, but for our profession and our nation.”
Goluboff also recognized several graduates with awards given annually by the Law School. Award winners include:
- Eliza I. Schultz, Virginia State Bar Family Law Award and Earle K. Shawe Labor Relations Award.
- Anna Catherine Cox, Virginia Trial Lawyers Trial Advocacy Award.
- Gia Scala Nyhuis, Eppa Hunton IV Memorial Book Award.
- Taorui Guan, John M. Olin Prize in Law and Economics.
- Michael B. Shelton, Edward S. Cohen Tax Prize.
- Sara Elaine Wendel, Mortimer Caplin Public Service Award.
- Kolleen Christina Gladden, Pro Bono Award.
- Noreen Reza, Herbert Kramer/Herbert Bangel Community Service Award.
- Mark Damian Duda II and Arjun Pushkar Ogale, Roger and Madeline Traynor Prize.
- Chengqing Qian and Kexin Yuan, LLM Graduation Award.
- Mihir Kheterpal, Robert E. Goldsten Award for Distinction in the Classroom.
- Avery Clara Rasmussen, Z Society Edgar F. Shannon Award and the Thomas Marshall Miller Prize.
- Juliet Buesing Clark, James C. Slaughter Honor Award.
- Katharine M. Janes, Margaret G. Hyde Award.
Next, Darden Dean Scott Beardsley stepped to the podium. He started his remarks with what seemed to be any easy question – “Do you have a smartphone?” – and used that question to talk about how graduates can answer when the world calls.
“This call will be one of the most important of your lifetime. This call will ask you, Darden graduates, as responsible leaders, to act on your values and dreams and to play your part in helping change the world responsibly,” Beardsley said. Core values learned at Darden and UVA – honor, integrity, ethics, curiosity, authentic relationships – will guide how you answer that call, Beardsley said.
“Darden graduates, you are now alumni of the Darden School of Business, and your network of over 17,000 alumni across 90 countries welcomes you,” he said. “The world, even the unknown, is calling. … Your faculty and I know that you are well-prepared to embrace the unknown and to push ‘accept.’”
Darden also recognized the recipients of several awards given earlier this year, including:
- Margaret Hall Edmunds, the Samuel Forrest Hyde Memorial Fellowship.
- Emily Elizabeth Stover, the G. Robert Strauss Marketing Award.
- Pamela Fischer and Alexander Donald May, the Frederick S. Morton Award.
- Megan Catherine McGee, the Edgar F. Shannon Award.
- Justin Hicks, the Darden Executive MBA Faculty Award.
Darden also honored 16 recipients of the C. Stewart Sheppard Distinguished Service Award; 14 recipients of the William Michael Shermet Award, embodying “determination, strength of spirit and fortitude in the classroom”; and 46 recipients of Faculty Awards for Academic Excellence. As each award was named, groups of recipients stood and were applauded.
Next up were graduates of the McIntire School of Commerce. McIntire Dean Nicole Thorne Jenkins spoke about the meaning of “commerce” as the school celebrates its centennial this year.
“I keep coming back to a single meaning that I hope all of our esteemed Commerce graduates will consider as a lifelong guidepost,” said Jenkins, who is completing her first academic year as McIntire’s dean. “‘Commerce’ is the purposeful exchange of goods, services and ideas to strengthen and advance society.”
This means, she said, accounting not only for profits, but for people, places, power and purpose.
“Whether the paradigm through which you approach the exchange of goods, services and ideas is accounting, analytics, entrepreneurship, finance, management, marketing, technology, or any combination of those – you have learned that it’s through commerce that countries and communities balance economic growth, create job opportunities, and, most importantly, improve the standard of living – for real people,” she said. “Quite simply, you have learned to become hands-on, highly engaged business leaders who recognize, and assume responsibility for your capacity to use commerce for the common good.”
The McIntire School of Commerce also honored graduates with several individual awards, presented by Amanda P. Cowen, associate dean for graduate programs, and David W. Lehman, associate dean for undergraduate programs. These include:
- Clesson Allman Jr., Federation of Schools of Accountancy Student Achievement Award.
- Jocelyn Kelley, David W. Thompson Award in Accounting.
- Bonnie Zhang, National Association of Accountants Carman G. Blough Award.
- Caroline Burda, George Wasserman Distinguished Award in Marketing.
- Eryn Cohen, William F. O’Dell Distinguished Award in Marketing.
- Nadim Najjar, Henry R. Odell Distinguished Award in Management.
- Megan Bruce, Joseph Goldstein Distinguished Award in Finance.
- Erika Lee Elliston, Arun Gambhir and Katherine Lee, MSMIT Award for Excellence in Leadership and Technology.
- Sebastian Heinonen, Center for Management of Information Technology: Emerging Leader in IT Award.
- Erica Kim, F. Evans Farwell Distinguished Achievement Award.
- Samuel Lisner, Kevin Miner and Jackson Murphy, Global Commerce Scholars.
- Alexandra Hartwig and Kevin Miner, Lenox-Conyngham Scholarship for a Master of Philosophy program at the University of Cambridge.
- Jeannie Hirsch, Edgar F. Shannon Award for the McIntire School of Commerce.
- Associate Professor A.J. Baglioni Jr., Annual Faculty Recognition Award presented by The Order of Claw and Dagger.
The Order of the Claw and Dagger, a secret society focused on supporting McIntire, also honored a group of 16 students for “exemplifying the tenets of honor, excellence and humility.”
With that, President Jim Ryan officially conferred the degrees for each school, and the graduates soon joined together for one last rendition of the “Good Old Song,” their voices and cheers providing a final exclamation point for Final Exercises.
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D., MSBA and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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Darden School of Business
University of Virginia