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Spending graduation as North Korean prisoner

American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is

American student Otto Warmbier speaks as he is presented to reporters in Pyongyang, North Korea, on Feb. 29, 2016. Credit: AP / Kim Kwang Hyon

The University of Virginia was missing a student at its 2017 commencement ceremony. Now he is dead.

Otto Warmbier, 22, was supposed to graduate last month. He was supposed to “walk the lawn” and “wear the honors of honor,” just as his peers did. But unfortunately, Warmbier wasn’t given that opportunity. Instead of spending his last year at school participating in university traditions, and planning for the future, he was a prisoner in North Korea. On Monday afternoon, his family said he had died from “the awful torturous mistreatment” by the North Koreans.

I had the opportunity to attend UVA’s commencement in May. While I’m not a UVA student, nor did I know Otto Warmbier personally, his absence was a stunningly somber reminder at a joyous occasion. A young man, going out to discover the world, got stuck in a 50-year international affairs battle in a country led by an irrational dictator.

Like any university, UVA has some quirky traditions that may seem insignificant to the outside eye. At UVA, there are two ceremonial milestones that every student attends: Convocation and Final Exercises. On the Lawn at UVA, which other universities call their campus quad, students begin their academic journey facing a rotunda and promising to uphold the honor code of the university. Then at Final Exercises, students face the other side of the Lawn, which looks out to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It’s a symbolic moment for students to walk from the beginning of their university experience toward a real world full of unknowns.

As I sat with families and friends of graduates, the president of the university, Teresa A. Sullivan, reminded the Class of 2017 who was missing. Sullivan noted that Warmbier had been imprisoned for 17 months, and had not been able to talk to his family or U.S. government officials. Students wore #FreeOtto stickers on their caps and gowns.

“We will continue to hold Otto and his family in our thoughts and prayers, and I know those of you who were his classmates miss his presence,” Sullivan said at the time.

We sat and watched our loved ones begin the next chapter of their lives while remembering that a family was wondering when its son would get to come home.

Melissa Holzberg is an intern with Newsday Opinion.