BLACKSBURG, Va. - The former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq praised Virginia Tech's students last night for their quiet courage, dignity and poise in dealing with last month's shooting rampage that left 33 dead.

And though the students must honor the lives that were lost, they must not be paralyzed by the past, retired Army Gen. John Abizaid said at a ceremony for about 3,600 graduating seniors. The university prepared to hand out class rings to relatives of the 27 slain students, followed by diplomas in smaller ceremonies today.

"Short was their stay on this mortal stage. Great was their impact," university president Charles Steger said of the slain students in an address earlier yesterday to about 600 of the nearly 1,200 graduate students who received master's degrees and doctorates.

Gunman Seung-Hui Cho killed the 27 fellow students, five faculty members and himself. His family will receive neither a ring nor a diploma, the university said.

In many ways, the evening ceremony seemed like most commencements. Grinning students jumped and waved as their faces appeared on the stadium's giant screen while "Pomp and Circumstance" played and a faint drizzle fell.

Students chanted "Hokies!" and the stadium's stands twinkled with camera flashes from graduates' proud relatives. Students decorated their mortarboards with "VT" and "Hi Mom."

But the speeches, while marked by hope, were also laced with sorrow.

"Rest assured, we will define ourselves by where we have been and where we will go," class historian Jennifer Weber said.

Survivors have a responsibility to realize the dreams and aspirations of the slain, Abizaid said.

"While we are saddened by the loss of those who cannot be here today," he said, "I believe that they would want this ceremony to commemorate both the tragedy of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow. I believe that they look down on this gathering with dignified pride."

During the graduate ceremonies, nine slain graduate students were awarded 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.

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 could not 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 for more than their daughter's degree. They also wanted 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."

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