University holds final commencement as Jesuit school

Photo by Scott McCloskey Participating in Wheeling Jesuit University’s commencement Saturday are, from left, President Michael Mihalyo Jr., valedictorian Abby Elisabeth Woods of Moundsville, Alumni Council President Joseph Munhall and guest speaker Jeffrey Ted Jezierski.

WHEELING — Wheeling Jesuit University graduates’ joy was tempered by sadness Saturday as the school conducted its final commencement as a Jesuit institution.

Amid a financial crisis, the university is downsizing academic programs and eliminating many faculty positions. In addition, the university’s Jesuit affiliation is ending now.

Speakers at the 61st graduation ceremony mentioned the changes in their remarks. The university is slated to get a new name, but it is yet to be announced.

This year’s commencement “is a little different here in Wheeling,” said guest speaker Jeffrey Ted Jezierski, a 1997 WJU graduate.

“Let us hope for wisdom and clarity for the decisions ahead,” he added.

Alumni Council President Joseph Munhall, a 1993 graduate, said the university has faced “very honest and frank conversations” as a result of very difficult circumstances over the past year.

Class valedictorian Abby Elisabeth Woods of Moundsville said “tough endings and sad goodbyes” also await students, faculty and staff who face the unknown. “There are tough challenges and decisions for many of us going forward,” she said.

“Wheeling Jesuit is about the people, not the name, not the place,” said Woods, who earned a degree in accountancy.

Jessica Wrobleski, faculty council chairwoman and associate professor of theology and religious studies, was given a standing ovation when she received the Gannon Outstanding Teaching Award. Wrobleski — whose position is being eliminated — said she was honored to accept the award but wanted “to acknowledge and recognize the other faculty who will not be returning in the fall.”

She said many of the terminated faculty also were Gannon winners and “great teachers.” She gave special recognition to Kathyrn Voorhees, professor of English, and the Rev. Michael Steltenkamp, S.J., professor of religious studies and theology.

The Rev. Hadi Sasmida, S.J., campus minister, noted in his invocation that “many of our colleagues have to change in new directions.” Directing the prayer to God, he said, “Through all the recent and painful changes, you have shown your love for us.”

Offering a benediction, the Rev. James Conroy, S.J., superior of the Jesuit community, said “gratitude fills our hearts even as we say goodbye and let go. We are grateful and open to a future that is in (God’s) hands.”

WJU President Michael Mihalyo Jr. presented honorary degrees to Jezierski and Munhall, gave out awards and conferred degrees to the Class of 2019. Msgr. Kevin Quirk, chairman of WJU’s board of trustees, was scheduled to assist with the presentations, but he was absent.

Jezierski, a Weirton native who is director of appropriations for U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., read a letter from the senator during his speech. Capito stated that “Wheeling Jesuit has been a constructive force in West Virginia” and said West Virginians “persevere with grace and dignity during difficult times.”

Munhall urged graduates to be grateful, be honest, do service and be Christ-like.

Woods — who underwent brain surgery the summer before her freshman year — said she was ready to quit higher education on her fourth day, but found a supportive community on campus. “At Jesuit, students are not numbers or statistics. They are humans,” she said.

Woods and Madeline L. Davin of Kensington, Maryland, earned Henry F. Paul Medals for having the highest four-year averages in the Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts programs, respectively. Erin M. Unterbrink of Raymond, Ohio, was recognized as the salutatorian.

Davin also earned the Katherine Fouts and Mary Woomer medals, while Darius J. Berry of Cumberland, Maryland, received the Archbishop John J. Swint Medal. Alexa P. Ream and Jeremy D. Sagun, both of Wheeling, were awarded the Russell E. Younkins Medal.