Charlotte Moss leaning against a railing
In the run-up to spring commencement, Charlotte Moss has been reflecting on her time at VCU and the enduring influence it had on her. (Allen Jones, University Marketing)

A new speech for a new era: Charlotte Moss will deliver VCU’s commencement keynote two years later than expected

Moss, a VCU alum and influential interior designer and author, was prepared to speak to the Class of 2020 before COVID canceled commencement. Her new speech is more personal – a reflection of what has transpired in the years since.

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In March 2020, Charlotte Moss was polishing the speech that she planned to deliver at Virginia Commonwealth University’s spring commencement. A VCU alum, Moss was thrilled about the opportunity to return to her native Richmond and share life lessons and advice based on her experiences building a career as an influential interior designer and author. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, just two months before the scheduled event. Commencement moved online to a virtual event, and Moss set her speech aside.

This week, Moss will finally get her chance. She will be the keynote speaker on Saturday at VCU’s year-end commencement ceremony, its first universitywide spring commencement since May 2019.

A lot has changed in the two years since Moss initially prepared to address VCU’s newest graduates. Consequently, so has Moss’ message. As Moss explained it, “I wrote a speech, and the world blew up. So, then I wrote a different speech.”

Moss spoke to VCU News from her home in New York City last month as she prepared for the big day. Moss has authored 11 books and received numerous honors, including the New York School of Interior Design’s Centennial Medal and The Royal Oak Foundation’s Timeless Design award. She is on the advisory board of The New York School of Interior Design, where she holds an honorary doctorate.

Are you excited to finally have this opportunity to speak to VCU’s graduating class?

I definitely am. Can you believe it? It's hard to imagine it’s really happening. First, I’d like to say what an honor this is and a huge responsibility to be given the opportunity. Also, I have more family attending on Saturday than at my own graduation. That says something.

Is this something that you've been thinking about much since the pandemic started?

I actually haven't stopped thinking about it, and I haven’t stopped thinking about the students and what they’ve been going through. When you have a chance to stand in front of that many people – all those students and their families – on such an important day in their lives, it’s quite a responsibility. It’s a very big day, and I feel lucky to be part of it.

Have you found that your perspective has shifted in some ways since you first prepared for this two years ago?

It was a different world back then. I think one of the most important things that you can communicate to this younger age group is that life is about change and change is a constant. But we had this compressed period of rapid, cataclysmic change. For that reason, the speech I first wrote is not the speech I'm giving. I think all of us have experienced some recalibration in our personal lives, our work lives, how we mash the two together, and it has led us to reprioritize and think about what is really important to us. I know it’s really affected me that way, and it’s affected how I want to communicate to them.

How has your message changed?

After what’s happened the past two years, it’s really made me think that the message has to be much more personal than I had originally written. Because I think we've all had so much time to be in our own place, in our own space, in our own heads. We all had to slow down and that made us think about things that are really important to us in a way maybe we didn’t before. Because of that, it’s easier to say no to things now. Years ago, Fleur Cowles [an editor, writer and artist] gave me some great advice, “Select, select, select.” This experience the past two years has been a reminder to all of us to be selective in your life, who you spend time with and what you do.

For these students to be graduating at what is hopefully the end of a pandemic – a pandemic that has had such a large effect on the last two years of their college life – it’s unique. They’re in a position to think about what they want to do with the rest of their lives in a different, more profound way because they had this compressed period where there was just so much tragedy around. So many people are thinking more deeply about the many different layers of their lives right now because of this kind of tectonic shift that occurred.

Have you been reflecting on your time at VCU as you prepare for commencement?

One of the things that really has come back to me was just how connected I was to VCU when I was there, and I really hadn't thought about that in a long time. The friends I made, the teachers who influenced me, it has all sort of come back to me like opening up a floodgate. You put things in boxes in your life and you store them away and you don’t think about them a lot. Then suddenly there’s a chance to open that box, and it really surprises you what’s there and how it affected you. That’s what’s happened to me thinking about VCU and how much it still means to me today.

This is VCU’s first universitywide spring commencement ceremony since 2019. Does that make this opportunity, which I know already meant a lot to you two years ago, even more special? Do you feel a particularly strong connection to these students?

Yes, it makes it really emotional for me. I think we’re all allowing ourselves to be more emotional than we were before – less guarded about things. I know that’s been one of the biggest changes for me in the way that I see life, at least. We’re a couple years older, but it seems like more than two years has passed. We were stuck at home for so long, staring at the walls, and it really made us examine our lives under a microscope – every aspect of your life and what’s important and what’s not important. That’s a thread I’ve been thinking about a lot. And that’s part of why I wrote something more personal this time around.

I think everyone felt a greater sense of connection with each other for a while. I think we were all joined in this tragic period, where we didn't have choices that we normally had. We were all limited. We all had a common desire to get past this thing, and to try to be as positive as we could about it. The effects of that ran deep in a very real and organic way. But now coming out of it, it's like the butterfly that has just hatched. That’s what’s happening for these students right now. We’re all ready to be inspired. We’re thirsty for connection, and we’re going to go find it. I think all of us are ready to get a move on and to be an integral part of crafting a healthy, optimistic future – the best future we can imagine.

VCU’s spring commencement will be held at 10 a.m. on Saturday at the Greater Richmond Convention Center.