My Classmates Will Walk. I Will Sit.

By Julia Poppenberg

Washington and Lee University has a long-standing policy that states, “Only those students who have completed all requirements and who are receiving degrees participate in Commencement.” The university has never granted an exception. This policy affects the students whose undergraduate careers, for one reason or another, took more time than the standard trajectory. Students in such a predicament have not yet earned their right to walk with the class they entered W&L with, nor is there certainty in the fulfillment of their graduation requirements after their class’ Commencement.

The Faculty Executive Committee, the committee that enforces this policy, would take on more risk and complexity by considering the participation of students who have not completed all graduation requirements by the Commencement date. Since the university’s inception, the committee has not been persuaded to consider students on a case by case basis in lieu of adhering to their strict policy on Commencement exercises. The FEC did not find my recent petitions any more compelling than those of previous petitioners.

I took a medical leave of absence the second semester of my junior year to focus on improving my mental health; the severity of my struggles with disordered eating and obsessive perfectionism were beginning to outgrow the abilities of W&L’s counseling center. When I made such a choice, I was aware of the prospect that W&L would deny me the opportunity to walk with my classmates. However, this did not outweigh the urgency with which I needed to return home and address an issue that had begun to hinder my ability to function.

I could have pushed through another semester at W&L, hoping my health would just improve. I could have taken online classes while I was in treatment or during my internship over the summer. I could have overloaded first or second semester of my senior year. Rather, I chose not to overwhelm myself with more obligations than necessary. I chose not to because that is what was in my best interest. I chose to prioritize my physical and mental wellness.

On May 23rd, the day my class will graduate, I will have completed the Accounting and Business Administration major as well as all liberal arts requirements. I will have obtained 30 additional credits from Excelsior College. I will leave for Madrid five days later to take 12 credits at the University of Antonio Nebrija this summer for a total of 151 credits at the end of July. However, on the day of graduation, I will have 109 out of the 113 required credits from W&L to graduate. I petitioned to the FEC twice, asking the committee to consider students in situations similar to mine on a case by case basis. I was denied twice. I asked for more rationale. I was told that this is a longstanding policy and mine is not the first case of this sort.

Both large public schools and private schools similar in size to Washington and Lee take students into consideration who have not fully finished their graduation requirements to participate in Commencement. For example, Pennsylvania State University, a public school of more than 98,000 students. Rice University, a private school of 4,000 students. As a university of under 2,000 students, it is not likely W&L would often have to expend a great effort in considering cases like mine and the cases that are likely to come.

Since 2004 the increase in students using the university counseling center has increased threefold. Students complain of being double booked or unable to get longer than thirty minute appointments every two weeks. Although the number of counselors is comparable to other universities of our size, there is a demonstrated need on our campus for more professional resources. A campus comprised of impressive individuals yields immense internal pressure that for some results in anxiety, obsessive perfectionism, disordered eating, or depression. Since having returned from my own medical leave of absence, I have opened myself as a resource to Johnson scholars, 4.0 athletes, upcoming ivy league graduate students and others who are struggling.

Washington and Lee, some of your best and brightest are suffering on this campus. They may need to take time away from you to get better. Upon returning, they may not present you with compelling evidence that they will finish their undergraduate degrees. However, in the case that they provide you with a persuasive plan, they should be able to walk with their fellow students who stood by their side and helped them to heal.


Julia P. Poppenberg, Class of 2019

Didi Pace