William & Mary’s Class of 2020 received words of encouragement and advice from not just one Commencement speaker this year, but many as the university hosted its first virtual degree-conferral ceremony.
While the slate of alumni, faculty, staff, students and others acknowledged that this wasn’t the Commencement ceremony anyone had envisioned, the speakers applauded the graduates for their resiliency during the COVID-19 pandemic and encouraged them — from whenever they might be watching — to celebrate fully the hard work and dedication that had earned them a W&M degree.
“So look, it’s a heavy time, and if I had to give you one piece of advice I’d say don’t anchor yourself to today,” said Mellody Hobson, president and CEO of Ariel Investments, who was originally scheduled to serve as the 2020 Commencement speaker.
“I promise this weight will lift. I say this out of both optimism and experience. We will emerge from this crisis stronger and more energized. You didn’t have a choice to accept this challenge, but you do have a choice to make the most of it. Keep making history and, again, congratulations.”
Hobson recorded one of multiple video messages that were incorporated into the virtual ceremony, which was broadcast Saturday morning online. Before the event, students were encouraged to submit photos of themselves to be included on an online “social media wall” and shown at the end of the virtual ceremony. The virtual event was followed by multiple departmental celebrations that were also hosted online.
In addition to Hobson, other short video messages were shown at beginning of the ceremony from alumni like former Steelers Football Coach Mike Tomlin 95, L.H.D. ’08; CNN Correspondent David Culver ’09; comedian Patton Oswalt ’91; and U.S. Women’s Soccer Coach Jill Ellis ’88, L.H.D. ’16, who presented her remarks as a playful poem.
Video messages also came from staff, faculty, students like former Student Assembly President Kelsey Vita ’20 and other university leaders, including former W&M President Taylor Reveley and Rector John Littel P ’22, who said this isn’t the first W&M class to face challenges upon graduation.
“Your predecessors left campus determined to tackle these challenges and change the world, and they usually did,” said Littel, who leads the Board of Visitors and is a parent of a student in the Class of 2022. “You are now part of the living history of this college, and we urge you to remain engaged in the life of William & Mary as alumni, even as you travel to points across the globe to meet today’s challenges and change your world.”
In a video filmed in the Wren Building’s Great Hall, W&M President Katherine A. Rowe presided over the ceremony, saying that the university’s celebration of the Class of 2020 would be “both/and,” with a full, traditional Commencement ceremony planned for Oct. 10.
“This spring will go down in the annals of William & Mary’s long history,” Rowe said. “So, too, will the compassion, creativity and resilience of our students — professional students, graduate students and undergraduates in the great Class of 2020.”
W&M Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98 also commended the Class of 2020 for not only completing their degrees but doing so remotely.
“In my experience, people who overcome challenges stand a little taller; they know they’ve got what it takes to persevere,” he said. “In my experience, people who have overcome challenges love a little more deeply; they know how precious time is with those held dear. In my experience, people who have overcome challenges celebrate a little more joyfully; they know how to savor the moment.
“Class of 2020, you are different — be proud that you are. Stand tall. Love deeply. Celebrate joyfully. We honor you today, and I look forward to celebrating with you in person this fall.”
After Rowe recognized this year’s recipients of the annual Commencement awards, she was joined — virtually — by the deans of the university’s five schools and Provost Peggy Agouris for the conferral of degrees, both undergraduate and graduate. A total of 2,684 degrees were conferred, including 1,653 baccalaureate degrees. The degrees will be sent to the graduates in the mail.
Erin Schwartz M.A. ’15, Ph.D. ’20, graduate council president, and Cody Mills ’20, senior class president, served as student speakers for the ceremony, both commenting on the unique situation they and their classmates found themselves in this semester.
“Graduating in these times is truly uncharted territory, but throughout the last few months, your tenacity and thoughtfulness have shone through, your willingness to volunteer to support your friends and local communities, find ever-creative ways to work and balance self-care, family — literally everything — and maintain a sense of community even far away, has been incredible and inspiring,” said Schwartz.
Mills, too, said that it was W&M’s sense of community — even while physically separated — is something that had impressed him during the pandemic.
“And so I want to say to each and every member of the Class of 2020, thank you so much for being a part of my community,” Mills said. “We are passionate, and we are uplifted. We are strong. We are deserving, and we are absolutely united. We may be gone for now, but we need always remember that saying goodbye to a place is never saying goodbye to a community.”
The Wren Building can serve as a reminder of W&M’s tradition of community and belonging, Rowe said as she closed the historic ceremony.
“Today, I hope the Wren reminds you that our campus is waiting to welcome you back, in October for our in-person Commencement and throughout your lives as alumni,” she said.
Erin Zagursky is the associate director of university news at William & Mary.
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