As Rebeen Pasha donned his cap and gown and prepared to graduate from the University of Virginia yesterday, he said his thoughts were on a gloomy evening in his native Iraq in November 1992.
The 10-year-old Pasha and his family, Iraqi Kurds, were eating dinner at their home in northern Iraq. The power had gone out. Somebody knocked on the door.
Pasha's father, Dilshad, a university lecturer active in the Kurdish rebellions against Saddam Hussein, grabbed his handgun. His wife begged him to stay at the table. But the elder Pasha opened the door.
Two shots were heard in the darkness, and Dilshad Pasha staggered back into the living room, hit in the head and neck. He died before he could reach a hospital -- forever changing the life and altering the path of his grieving son.
Rebeen Pasha spoke not a word of English when the family fled Iraq four years later. He wound up graduating from Annandale High School in 2000 as student government president.
So it was with a special pride that Pasha's mother, Shayan, and his brother, Dereen, 17, both of Centreville, celebrated the university's 175th commencement with him.
"Wherever [my father] is, he must be proud of what I've accomplished," said Pasha, 21, who wants to return to Iraq to help fix the health care system and explore the health effects of Hussein's deadly chemical weapons attacks on the Kurds.
The diverse backgrounds of many graduates was a key theme of yesterday's commencement exercises. Nearly 600 of the 5,744 candidates awarded undergraduate and graduate degrees are international students, and others, like Pasha, were born outside the United States. Speakers freely invoked such world events as the war in Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
About 30,000 relatives and friends of the graduates crammed onto the university's famed Lawn -- designed by Thomas Jefferson as his "Academical Village" -- for the ceremonies. A driving early-morning rain gave way to pleasant sunshine, and the mood among graduates was buoyant.
University President John T. Casteen III, speaking under an awning decorated in the university's blue and orange colors, told the graduates: "It has never been more important that this university prepare students to be international citizens.
"Many of you were here in Charlottesville on that Tuesday in September of 2001 when the morning began so beautifully and ended in tragedy."
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), the commencement speaker, recalled that when he graduated from the University of Virginia's law school in 1953, "America was preeminent. We as a nation were protected by two great oceans, never thinking for a moment that anyone or anything could strike us; 9/11 changed all of that," Warner said.
Warner also spoke of the scandal over what he called the "mistreatment" of prisoners in Iraq, saying to loud cheers from graduates that it was "an appalling and totally unacceptable breach of military conduct, discipline and professionalism."
Yet, he vowed, "We will not fail in our mission to provide freedom in far-flung corners of the world."
Many students in the College of Arts and Sciences expressed more parochial concerns as they prepared for the annual procession down the Lawn. Some joked about having to get up so early for the 10 a.m. ceremonies. Others spoke wistfully of the past four years.
"It's bittersweet," said Jen Bernhards, 21, of Annandale. "It's exciting to be graduating, obviously, but it's very sad, just knowing you're never going to have this kind of freedom, that your friends won't be around like this. It's time to grow up."
Bernhards graduated from Annandale High School along with Pasha, whom she called "a huge role model for everyone. He has definitely overcome every obstacle."
Pasha said he had been depressed earlier in the weekend but was mostly excited yesterday.
"It will be nice to get the product of four years and really start working the degree toward something bigger," said Pasha, who helped found a program at the university, Children of War, for students with war-torn childhoods to discuss their experiences.
As an international health policy major, Pasha said his next step is graduate school in public health -- at the University of North Carolina or Columbia University, both of which have accepted him.
Then he hopes to return to his native land.
Pasha has mixed views of the war that ousted Hussein, the man whose agents the family firmly believes killed his father.
"I'm glad the regime is out and that Iraq will hopefully be able to establish a free and democratic state, but I'm worried about the situation right now," Pasha said. He added that he was "extremely shocked" by the prisoner abuse scandal.
But he said he is grateful to the United States, whose government evacuated him and his family after they fled their home in Iraq to Turkey in 1996 once they learned that Pasha's mother had been targeted as well. He started learning English from U.S. service personnel he met in Guam, en route to the United States, and later took intensive English as a Second Language classes in high school.
"I'm very appreciative that I've been able to be here and be part of this wonderful education in a great country," Pasha said. "Even if I go to Iraq, I would still come back here. This is my home now."