College athlete surprised with graduation ceremony on the beach while headed to brunch with her boyfriend

Graduate Alexa Williams with her rowing coach Dan Garbutt during her surprise graduation. (Photo: Alexa Williams)
Graduate Alexa Williams with her rowing coach Dan Garbutt during her surprise graduation. (Photo: Alexa Williams)

Alexa Williams was set to graduate this spring from Virginia’s Old Dominion University. But when the graduation ceremony was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Williams instead received a special surprise from the people she loves.

The 23-year-old native of Chesterfield, Va. thought she was going out to grab a quick bite with her boyfriend in Virginia Beach on Saturday. But when she arrived at the waterfront, she discovered her family had planned a special graduation ceremony in her honor.

Graduate Alexa Williams celebrates her surprise graduation ceremony. (Photo: Alexa Williams)
Graduate Alexa Williams celebrates her surprise graduation ceremony. (Photo: Alexa Williams)

“Organically, my boyfriend told me that he was taking me out to breakfast Saturday morning to celebrate my graduation. He told me to bring my cap,” said Williams, who received degrees in exercise science and psychology.

But she soon discovered that her family had hatched a surprise graduation plan to celebrate her achievement, leaving her “absolutely shocked.”

“We walked up to the hotel where the restaurant is supposed to be, and the receptionist said that they’re not open ‘til noon,” Williams told Yahoo Life. “We go outside to the beach and I see my whole family, my head coach ... the local news station. Then I was interviewed and spent the rest of the day with my family.” 

Graduate Alexa Williams poses with family members at her surprise graduation. (Photo: Alexa Williams)
Graduate Alexa Williams poses with family members at her surprise graduation. (Photo: Alexa Williams)

The beach was a perfect place to hold Williams’s graduation, since the grad took to the water so quickly as a new college student. When she first arrived at ODU, Williams had no rowing experience, but still joined the school’s team. She went on to earn a scholarship, and even earned a place on the team’s top boat for two years.

“I had no experience,” said Williams. “I played basketball, discus and shot-put. Being competitive was a hobby of mine. I enjoyed challenges and working myself up to the top!”

When Williams’s family celebrated her graduation on Saturday, Dan Garbutt, the head coach of ODU’s rowing team, was there to honor her. He even gave a speech to the crowd.

"I don’t know that I’m ever gonna find somebody like her again," Garbutt told WTKR. "Both as committed to being a top performer day in and day out, but also being that person to keep the mood right where it needs to be so that the energy is right. That’s pretty special."

“My coach has been the nicest coach I ever had being an athlete,” Williams told Yahoo. “He really makes you feel accepted and teaches us that anything is possible. I was holding back tears when my head coach gave his speech!”

As for how Williams managed to achieve so much in such a short time, the grad says she credits it all to a hardworking attitude.

“Hard work, dedication and resilience,” said Williams. “I believe that when you work hard and be optimistic things will come easier to you.”

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