On May 20, the VIMS community gathered to recognize graduates from the class of 2023 and acknowledge their remarkable accomplishments. The ceremony took place on VIMS’ Gloucester Point campus and was followed by a celebratory brunch. The event kicked off with a warm welcome from VIMS Associate Dean for Academic Studies Dr. Linda Schaffner, who then introduced VIMS Dean & Director Dr. Derek Aday.
Aday addressed the graduating class, stating, “The work that you have done has made an enormous difference to the organisms that you work on, the systems that you work in, the communities that depend on them, and to VIMS as a whole.”
He continued by sharing the graduates’ collective achievements, “The 2023 class has together published 64 papers in outstanding scientific publications such as Proceedings of the Royal Society, Nature Communications and Nature Geosciences. They’ve won nearly every major award that VIMS gives out. Seven have served as William & Mary teaching fellows, designing and serving as instructor of record of their own course. They have experience working at places like The Nature Conservancy, the U.S. Forest Service, and the International Council for Exploration of the Seas. But perhaps best of all, they’re headed for fantastic new opportunities with positions like Restoration Coordinator for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Knauss Policy Fellow with NOAA, Associate Scientific Analyst in NASA’s Ocean Ecology Lab, Science Educator at the Mariner’s Museum, many different scientist positions at state and federal agencies, new graduate positions here at VIMS and UNCW, and postdoctoral research positions at Princeton, Pacific Northwest National Lab, University of South Florida, UC Santa Cruz, and the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center.”
To conclude, Aday urged graduates to make a difference. He said, “I’ll finish with this thought. You’re a product of great investment. You reflect the investment of your friends and family, your teachers and mentors, your peers and colleagues, and your own hard work and dedication. But because of that investment, you have both the very great privilege and the very great responsibility to live a life that matters. To effect change in the lives of ecosystems and the livelihoods of people most affected by a changing planet. Now the journey is yours. Where to apply and how to apply yourself. Which battles to fight and which to relent. Whether to educate, research, advise, or consult. These choices are yours.”
Following his address to the class of 2023, Aday recognized Schaffner’s tremendous service to VIMS, first as a student, then as a faculty member, and most recently through more than a decade as Associate Dean for Academic Studies. Schaffner is stepping down from her administrative role this summer, making this her last graduation as Associate Dean. The audience gave a standing ovation in honor of Schaffner’s dedication to students and service to the institution.
Schaffner then introduced the speaker from the graduating class, Dr. Fei Da, sharing that “Fei is well known to the VIMS community and increasingly in the scientific community for his cutting-edge research on how global change processes affect estuaries. We also want to acknowledge the importance of his leadership in building community and providing a voice for international students at VIMS and W&M.” Da completed his Master’s degree at VIMS in 2018 and successfully defended his dissertation in spring 2023 before beginning a postdoctoral position at Princeton.
Da spoke about the challenges graduates overcame during the pandemic and gave heartfelt advice on how to overcome imposter syndrome. He earned laughs from the audience when he explained that all the American sitcoms he watched growing up didn’t prepare him for the unique setting of Gloucester Point. Reflecting on “the warm and personable culture at VIMS,” Da shared that he will carry his VIMS experiences with him for his entire life. He also highlighted the impact of the VIMS community, describing a VIMS student seminar tradition of asking a funny, low-stakes question – for example: ‘if you were a dog, what breed would you be and why?’ – during introductions to set a collegial tone. Da explained that he has taken this tradition on the road and numerous colleagues have told him that they in turn will implement it at their home institutions. Ripple effects of the collaborative, close-knit VIMS community are felt around the world.
In addition to PhD and M.S. graduates, the class of 2023 included the first graduates from the VIMS Professional M.A. in Marine Science. Throughout their time in the Professional M.A. Program, students participated in the interdisciplinary coursework and training necessary to translate, integrate, and apply marine science across a broad range of career paths and societal concerns. The first cohort is emerging with preparation for careers that span policy, business, education, outreach, and more. Reflecting on her time in the program, M.A. graduate Kacey Hirshfeld said “The M.A. program at VIMS gave me the opportunity to combine the best parts of a traditional research degree with a career-focused professional program. I was encouraged to create and form my own unique professional experience while also having the support of an advisor and many formal and informal mentors across VIMS.” Hirshfeld’s next destination is the Center for American Progress, where she will serve as a campaign manager for their State-Federal Climate Initiative.
Overlooking the water at the post-ceremony brunch, VIMS Executive Director of Advancement Marise Robbins-Forbes formally welcomed the class of 2023 to the VIMS alumni community. More than 800 VIMS alumni are making a global impact, in non-profit, academic, industry, and government roles. The class of 2023 now joins them, armed with advice from Aday: “You’re equipped to win most of the intellectual battles you face but those will be hollow victories if you don’t affect change. So, my advice is to lead with shared values and shared interests. People have to know that you care before they care what you know. When you use your talent and your training and your intellect in careful and thoughtful ways, you will absolutely make a difference in this world.”