May 12th, 2012
02:14 PM ET
By Dan Merica, CNN
Lynchburg, Virginia (CNN) – When Michelle Berry got up this morning, she wasn’t thinking about Mitt Romney. For her, this day was a long time coming.
Berry, a 48-year old senior at Liberty University, has dreamed of college graduation for a long time. After finishing high school 30-years ago, Berry got her associates degree in nursing. Until today, a bachelor’s degree has eluded her.
“For me personally, it is all about that fact that this is my day,” Berry said. “I earned it.”
Berry’s graduation, however, wasn’t your normal pomp-and-circumstance moment. Liberty’s 2012 commencement has been shrouded in controversy since the evangelical Christian university announced that Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would be the keynote speaker.
Berry expressed a feeling that was similar to what many Liberty students walking in today’s graduation told CNN. Most students said that today is their day and whether they support Romney, the graduation speaker does not change the fact that they have worked countless hours for this moment and can’t wait for their tassels from left to right.
Donning decorated graduation caps and long, black gowns, many of today’s 6,000 graduates echoed Moore’s statement and the online hubbub that erupted over Romney’s selection was not on their minds.
“This has been a while coming, that is all this is really about,” said Leanzar Stockley, a student graduation with a bachelors in Christian Counseling. “I earned this and it is a success for my family and for myself.”
Stockley said he is neutral on Romney and hasn't been following politics much – “on purpose,” he said.
“Who is speaking, it doesn't really bother me too much,” Stockley said. “I am just happy to be here.”
Other students were excited to see Romney.
“I am personally thankful that he is here because I would rather have a potential president speak at my graduation than someone who is just a celebrity,” said graduating senior Jeanel Potts.
Potts will be leaving Lynchburg to work as a nurse at the University of Virginia hospital in Charlottesville, Virginia. She said she disregarded those who had an issue with Romney speaking at commencement.
“I feel like there is a lot of contention, but a lot of it is from people who aren’t even walking,” Potts said. “If the people walking don’t have a problem with it, than other people shouldn't.”
Some graduates said that they hoped Romney would not use this event to talk about politics. Instead, they said, he should inspire the graduates and talk about his experience in the real world.
Romney did speak a great deal about his experiences in life, mentioning his time leading the Salt Lake Olympics, his time in the business community and, at times, his political aspirations.
“I’ve found myself thinking about life in four-year stretches,” Romney joked.
More than anything, though, his speech was deeply spiritual, mentioning the stress he puts on family and his belief that marriage is between a man and a woman, a line the earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. He regularly cited the bible and other Christian figures, while also mentioning that his faith was different than some in the crowd.
“People of different faiths, like yours and mine, sometimes wonder where we can meet in common purpose, when there are so many differences in creed and theology,” Romney said. “Surely the answer is that we can meet in service, in shared moral convictions about our nation stemming from a common worldview.”
At the end of his speech, Romney looked to inspire the students.
“Sometimes, your Liberty education will set you apart, and always it will help direct your path,” Romney said. “And as you now leave, and make for new places near and far, I hope for each one of you that your path will be long and life will be kind.”
Mat Staver, dean of the Liberty Law School, said the speech would earn Romney points in the evangelical community.
“I think it will be a major boost for him within the evangelical community at large,” said Staver. “He didn't she away from the issues of importance.”
Staver continued: “It was really more a message of encouragement to our graduates about faith and about maintaining their faith and moral compass as they go out into the world.”
Tony Perkins, a graduate of Liberty University and president of the Family Research Council, congratulated Romney on his speech, stating in a press release that Romney had "picked up on the message that energized Rick Santorum's campaign."
"Today's address was a tremendous opportunity for Governor Mitt Romney to communicate to social conservatives... and Mr. Romney seized it by emphasizing the shared values he holds with evangelicals even while acknowledging theological differences," the release stated. "In his well-delivered speech, he accentuated the core values issues that are essential to a strong nation and of great importance to evangelicals."
Prior to commencement, though, a vocal group of people took to newspapers, Facebook and Twitter to protest Romney’s selection.
Over 700 comments were registered on the Liberty University Facebook page – many of which questioned why a university that teaches Mormonism is a cult, would select someone of that faith to address their students. “I can’t support Romney and I am happy I decided not to walk (in the commencement) this year,” wrote student Josh Bergmann.
In the Liberty Champion, the school's newspaper, one columnist wrote that Liberty University’s selection of Romney was “cause for concern.” “If Liberty were a secular institution, this would not be a big deal — but it is not,” read the column. “If Liberty wants to wear the Christian T-shirt, so to speak, then it needs to follow through with the guides set forth in the Bible.”
In response to the protest, Liberty University decided to delete the announcement from their Facebook page. Johnnie Moore, vice president of executive projects and spiritual programs, defended the decision.
In particular, Moore said in a statement that the students were primarily online students and “were not as familiar with Liberty University's traditions.” “Here [on campus], it wasn’t all that controversial,” Moore told CNN. “I don't think it was as controversial as some perceived it to be. It has actually been quite on the contrary. We have received tons of positive feed back.”
The negative sentiments that led up the Romney’s speech, however, were barely seen during his address. In large part, the crowd was receptive to Romney.
“I think it was safe, because he is of Mormon background, he did play it safe with his choice of words,” said Shelanne Jennings, a graduating senior with a bachelor's degree in journalism. “I may not agree with all that he says, but he did really point back to Christ and I think that is the most important thing.”
Standing near the stage, Vincent Valeriano was smiling to ear to ear while talking on the phone. The intercultural studies major stood with his mother, who also graduated from Liberty today.
“I think he did a great job,” said Valeriano. “It was very uplifting and encouraging.”
His mom beamed with pride after the ceremony, as did her son – around them families were hugging, celebrating and snapping photos. Students exchanged hugs and wished each other well. Many talked about plans for later tonight.
Romney had long left the lectern, on his way to continue with what will likely be a grueling campaign for the presidency. Students at Liberty remained on the field, reveling in their accomplishments and about their own future.
For them, today’s graduation was about their accomplishments and they were happy to leave it at that.
About this blog
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.