Although COVID-19 outbreak wiped out December commencement ceremonies recently at the University of Maryland, many other colleges and universities were able to host live events this past weekend despite concerns about the spread of the omicron variant.
The most prominent was President Joe Biden’s appearance at South Carolina State University’s ceremony, in which he referenced the pandemic, the challenges being faced by graduates and responding to this moment like no other.
“You earned it. You earned every bit of it,” he said. “I know it wasn’t easy: remote learning; fearing getting sick from COVID-19 and feeling the pain for those who lost loved ones, and you know people who have lost loved ones; the uncertainty of a devastated economy; the reckoning on race not seen since the ‘50s and ‘60s. Your time here has come during a tumultuous and consequential moment in modern American history.”
Biden discussed the transformational efforts being made by Historically Black College and Universities to serve students and the infusion of capital to them from the federal government, including the potential $1,500 boost to Pell Grants. He honored House Majority Whip Rep. James Clyburn, a 1961 graduate of SC State who did not have a ceremony to attend then but was there to introduce Biden and formally get his degree. But the President mostly discussed the pivotal time facing this generation and attendees’ role in ensuring the future of the nation.
“It has led you to graduate at a real inflection point in history,” Biden said. “No graduating class gets to choose the world into which they graduate. Every class enters the history of the nation up to the point that has been written by others. But few classes, every once in a few generations, enter at a point in American history where it actually has a chance to change the trajectory of the country. And I’m confident you’ll meet that moment.”
Across the country, as colleges make decisions about the next steps in the continuing COVID crisis with some returning to protocols not seen since the beginning of the pandemic, many were happy to be gathered for in-person events.
The University of Wisconsin at Green Bay celebrated with 500-plus grads and family members for its first face-to-face December commencement since 2019. And, like Biden, UW Regent Cris Peterson noted how graduates must not cower during this crisis but embrace their role in this new normal. “Opportunities often come from disasters, conflict, disease, disappointments and heartbreak,” she said. “Rise like the Phoenix and make this the beginning you’ve dreamed of.”
From the State University of New York at Plattsburgh to the University of Hawaii-Hilo, institutions held ceremonies indoors and livestreamed them as well. Most took extra precautions to ensure the safety of all attendees, including Saint Louis University which required proof of vaccination or a negative test upon entry to its ceremony at Chaifetz Arena. They ranged from smaller events such as Simpson College in Indiana honoring 74 students to huge commencements featuring thousands of graduates at Ohio State University, the University of Miami and Western Michigan University.
Though many speeches mentioned the pandemic, they also touched on key issues facing the country that should be addressed by this and future classes.
“To assist you on your journey, this venerable university has provided you a toolkit unlike any other, filled with all of the things that you will need to leverage, lean on and lead throughout your career—wherever it may take you,” said Frederic Bertley, president and CEO of the Center of Science and Industry. “In that toolkit you have essentials such as understanding the importance of civility, discourse, empathy and caring. Traits like discipline, kindness, conviction and gratitude are also included.”
Not all ceremonies went smoothly. There was a hiccup during the University of Louisville’s commencement in which interim President and Provost Lori Gonzalez made this unfortunate faux pas: “I love the University of Kentucky, and I plan to continue the tremendous progress and trajectory we’re on.” To be fair, Gonzalez did receive her Bachelor of Arts from UK and worked there for more than 20 years. She later apologized, saying, “I will do better.”
Speaking of UK, the university honored 1,200 graduates on Friday at Rupp Arena, requiring masks of all individuals in attendance, with recordings from two student speakers to minimize those on stage. One of those was Jack Nzerhumana, a refugee from the Democratic Republic of Congo who earned two degrees in psychology and neuroscience.
“Class of 2021, welcome to the day that oftentimes seemed utterly impossible,” he said. “Today is the day of the fulfillment of hopes and dreams. We have experienced shared struggles. Struggles of racial injustice and the coronavirus pandemic. However, despite the trials and obstacles that stood in our way, we are all sharing the same glory.”