December 10, 2021

From high school dropout to university commencement speaker: The soulful transformation of Virginia Nastase

Virginia Nastase, who will graduate with a degree in anthropology, fronts the rock band Virginia Violet and the Rays.

If you would have asked Virginia Nastase back in high school what her college aspirations were, she would have told you she had none. As a matter of fact, she wasn’t too keen on the idea of sticking out high school to earn her diploma, either. And if you told her that she would deliver the commencement address for the Wayne State University Class of 2021, she would have thought you were crazy. It took a serpentine course of soul-searching and soul music to reach this point in her life.

“I went to high school at Grosse Pointe North and Lamar High School in Houston before dropping out in tenth grade at age 16,” Nastase says. “College was never in my plan growing up.”

Nastase moved frequently during her formative years, making it difficult to establish roots in any one place. “We lived in Southfield and Harper Woods before moving to Houston, then to Colorado, back to Houston, and finally back here in 2010. Despite spending so much time in different places, I consider Michigan home.”

Although she was not interested in a college education, Nastase had deep passion for music. “As a kid, I was trained in classical violin, but now I sing and can mess around a bit on the piano and guitar — enough, at least, to write some songs.” In fact, she fronts a locally popular band called Virginia Violet and the Rays.

But slowly, Nastase came to realize that a college education might transform her life. “I first started thinking about college at 26, after going through a traumatic personal experience,” she says. “I was looking to change my life and I just decided on a whim to enroll in a class and see if I enjoyed it, which I did.”

Virginia Nastase

It was the combination of proximity and reputation that steered her toward Wayne State. “After doing the first half of my undergraduate classes at community college, I decided on Wayne State because I live in Hamtramck and it is right around the corner from me,” Nastase says. “I love the city of Detroit, and I heard Wayne State was an established research university with an excellent anthropology department. It just seemed like the right choice.”

Still, Nastase wasn’t completely convinced she had what it took to thrive in a university setting. “Like I said, college was never in my plan growing up, so part of me was nervous, not knowing what to expect and often undervaluing my own intelligence,” she says. “I waited until my mid-twenties to even begin college, so at that point I was ready to learn and dedicate my time and energy to higher education.”

Like all first-time college students, Nastase had to learn to navigate the challenges of attending a university. But she also had to learn to trust in herself. “My biggest challenge was myself,” she says. “Not always believing I was meant to be there or feeling like everyone around me was smarter, better, and more qualified.”

Ever so slowly, her confidence built with each success she achieved at Wayne State. “It has changed the way I think about myself and my place in the world,” Nastase says. “Those feelings of self-doubt have melted away. I feel sure of myself and excited to open my mind in new ways with everything I learn.”

Her band still provides a rewarding sideline in her life, Nastase says. “College and COVID have slowed gigs down a bit, but we try to play out at least every month or two. I am the lead singer and am backed up by the rest of the guys in my band singing four-part harmonies.” Fans and observers have described Virginia Violet and the Rays music as soul-inflected, owing many nods to the hometown sound of Motown.

Now, as she prepares to graduate with a degree in anthropology from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, Nastase reflects on what type of career she would like to have. “I am keeping an open mind to see what doors open and where I may go. I would love to work in a lab or museum, but anthropology is dynamic in the way that you can really find an array of diverse employment opportunities. I am going to go with the flow and see where I end up.”

For a tenth-grade dropout who didn’t even begin her college career until she was 26, graduating and delivering the commencement address is heady stuff.

“Being the commencement speaker this year is a big honor for me,” Nastase says. “I will speak about the responsibilities we have to acknowledge and know about our pasts in order to change our futures. It is important to know where you came from, and I am just hoping to tie that idea and those responsibilities to the excitement of finishing our degrees.”

Virginia Nastase has spent much of her young life soul-searching and playing music with soul, and it makes perfect sense that she would tie music to education. “Being a musician, the biggest lesson I have learned throughout my education is that you do not have to compartmentalize or compromise your interests or talents,” Nastase says. “It is a gift to be creative, and combining that with a higher education will only open more doors for you.”

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