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In BLACKSBURG, Virginia, thousands of Virginia Tech graduates struggled to balance joy with grief as commencement got under way Friday, less than a month after a student gunman’s rampage devastated the campus.

In an address to the nearly 1,200 graduate students who received master’s degrees, President Charles Steger spoke to the community’s grief while encouraging the graduates to be proud of their accomplishments and hopeful for their futures.

“Our hearts are saddened and our minds are troubled,” Steger said. (Watch how graduation is a time for healing )

A larger ceremony for some 3,600 graduating seniors was set for Friday evening, where the school planned to issue class rings to relatives of the slain students, followed by diplomas in smaller ceremonies Saturday.

“Short was their stay on this mortal stage. Great was their impact,” Steger said of the slain students.

Gunman Seung-Hui Cho also killed five faculty members and himself.

His family will not receive a ring or diploma.

During the graduate ceremonies, nine slain graduate students were awarded posthumous master’s degrees or doctorates. Faculty members hugged the relatives who received them, some wiping away tears and all drawing long and loud applause from the crowd of several thousand.

Graduate Scott Cassell, 55, of Roanoke, hadn’t planned to attend commencement. But after the attacks, the father of five decided he would go as a show of support for the grieving families.

“I just can’t fathom the loss,” said Cassell, who received a master’s degree in information technology. (Watch how graduation mixes pain and pride )

Security employees checked the bags of guests, armed police officers patrolled the grounds and state troopers stood guard at every entrance. Guests did not have to pass through metal detectors, though, and school officials said the level of security was comparable to what they would see at a home football game.

James Long, whose sister, Michelle, earned a degree in history, said students would not let the tragedy overshadow their celebration.

“There are too many people here to celebrate five, six years of hard work to let one guy screw that up,” said Long, 25, of Richmond.

Some families couldn’t bear to attend graduation. Others said they had no choice but to come.

“We have to. This is right for us,” said Peter Read, whose freshman daughter Mary Karen Read was among those killed.

Peter and Cathy Read returned to campus for more than their daughter’s degree. They also returned to erase an unsettling image from the minds of their two youngest sons, Patrick, 4, and Brendan, 2.

“They’re a little concerned that the bad man’s going to shoot them,” Cathy Read said. “We can’t let that idea grow in their heads.”

In Washington, President Bush issued a statement praising “the compassion and resilient spirit” of the Virginia Tech community and the 3,600 graduating seniors and others earning advanced or associate degrees.

“Laura and I salute the Virginia Tech Class of 2007. We also remember the students and teachers whose lives were taken last month,” he said. “They will always hold a special place in the hearts of this graduating class and an entire nation.”

Twins Andrea and Michelle Falletti of Chantilly, Virginia, said the shootings will not be what they remember when they look back on four years of college. Rather, they will recall spring breaks, camping trips and partying with friends.

“Obviously, what has happened has affected everything in our lives, and it will affect graduation,” said Andrea Falletti, 21. “In a way, it’s not going to be celebrating us as much; it’s more about what we’ve done as a community. But that’s OK. I’m proud of what we’ve done here.”
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Thank you, The Associated Press.
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Viriginia Tech University…the nations hearts and prayers are still with you…however, life continues and time is a great healer.

Take what you have learned and realize how precious and short life is.

Best of Luck,
~The Baby Boomer Queen~

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