by HALEY SCHNITZER
This past Sunday, Aug. 28, at 8:30 p.m., students, staff and the larger campus community gathered on Ball Circle to carry out one of the most beloved annual Mary Washington traditions: Eagle Gathering.
Eagle Gathering is difficult to capture in plain English, but it is best described as a candlelit ceremony with music—both instrumental and vocal—and inspiring speakers, with undertones of nostalgia, optimism, belonging and purpose.
Mary Washington is known for its rituals and traditions, both official and unofficial. At first glance, the energy fostered in these sorts of events can seem wacky or even “cultish,” but there is a lot of intention and meaning behind the practice. The traditions at Mary Washington are held in high regard and have the power to reinvigorate students and connect them back to their Mary Wash roots.
“As an upperclassman who can sometimes feel disconnected from the community, [Eagle Gathering] is a nice way to say ‘Welcome back!’ and ‘Good luck!’” said senior communication and digital studies major Addy Reeher.
Eagle Gathering is a tradition unique to UMW. The evening’s purpose is to initiate the class of new students, freshmen and transfers alike to officially welcome them into the Mary Washington community.
“One of the reasons I transferred to Mary Washington was because I felt a really strong sense of community on campus, and I’m glad that I’m experiencing that already,” said sophomore transfer student and biology major Laurel Gilbert.
For new students, the evening began in Dodd Auditorium where they were given an immersive presentation on “Being an Eagle” and were taught the Alma Mater so they could recite it during the ceremony. Following their session in Dodd, the new Eagles processed down Campus Walk with the Eagle Pipe Band playing in the background, landing at their final destination on Ball Circle, where an army of upperclassmen, staff and UMW community members stood in a circle ready to greet them and initiate them into the UMW community.
Once they were directed to do so, the outer circle of students lit the new students’ candles and symbolically passed them the “torch of knowledge,” which is at the center of the UMW seal.
The very first Eagle Gathering took place in 2012. Richard V. Hurley, who was Mary Washington’s president at the time, said the symbolism behind the candlelight passed from returning students to new students “stands for the desire to learn, to grow, to serve, to lead, and in all things, to give our best in search of meaning and truth.”
“My favorite part of the evening was getting to look around on Ball Circle and seeing the upperclassmen around us, knowing they had been in the exact position we were standing in just years earlier, and knowing that I will be standing where they stood in years to come, lighting a freshman’s candle and welcoming them in the way they welcomed me,” said freshman sociology major Hannah Anacko.
There is quite a bit of nostalgia inspired by this event for all groups of students in attendance, both for years passed and in looking to the future.
“As a student who is now a senior, it was really a good catharsis, not just for me but for my fellow seniors,” said senior political science major and SGA President, Joey Zeldin. “I was so happy with the outcome, the amount of people there to celebrate was really awesome, and being able to have the honor and privilege to speak was so surreal.”
Eagle Gathering typically takes place on the first Sunday of the semester, but this year it was postponed one week due to “rainy weather and potential thunderstorms,” as relayed to the Mary Washington community in an email from Amy Jessee, the Executive Director of University Communications at UMW.
The one-week delay did not put a damper on the event in the slightest. The Ball Circle audience was dazzled two times over by performances carried out by the Eagle Pipe Band, who led the procession of new students down Campus Walk, and once more by Symfonics, UMW’s oldest co-ed a cappella group, with their rendition of the Alma Mater.
The procession alongside the Eagle Pipe Band is something that students only experience twice in their time at UMW: their freshman year Eagle Gathering and on their graduation day.
“The walk to Ball Circle as a freshman is sort of surreal, knowing the only other time we will walk together as a class on that path will be at our graduation ceremony,” said Anacko.