CityWatch: Commencements during COVID-19 are a bittersweet experience for N.Y. grads

COVID-19 quarantine has put the kibosh on in-person commencement ceremonies, but these rituals are streaming around New York City.

While the events are virtual, the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 are real. The same is true of the challenges for speakers to mark this major milestone. 

“…seemingly small things, small decisions, small actions can have exponential effects in the other direction — affirming life and invigorating society.”

— Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African Studies at Princeton University

Amid so much uncertainty from the pandemic, what do you say to college students being robbed of one of the most important events of their lives? Not just in New York, but across the U.S., where there were some 3.9 million grads last year. Where can you go to find the right words?

Walden Pond is one place.  

Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane went there for inspiration for his address to the school’s 175th graduating class that streamed on May 16. Standing in full regalia at the school’s Keating Terrace in Manhattan, McShane borrowed words from Henry David Thoreau.

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach…,” McShane said, conjuring Thoreau’s self-isolation in 1845. In short order, he eloquently connected the dots to 2020.

“The scourge that changed your lives and upended your dreams changed the whole world…. The whole human family rolled up the sidewalks, retreated indoors and hunkered down,” McShane said. “You followed suit. In a very real sense, you were forced to live through your own private Walden moment…”

McShane eventually segued into lessons students learned from being “hunkered down at home.”

Among them: “That life is precious and of inestimable value. That life is also fragile and must be protected and nurtured with care. … That life is not a solo act. That we fully come alive only when we live with and for others.”

Rosie McCormack, 22, an international political economy major and valedictorian of the Class of 2020, watched Fordham’s virtual ceremony with her family back home in Missoula, Montana. 

“Of course it’s disappointing not to have an in-person graduation,” she told MarketWatch, adding that she’d worked on planning the school’s three previous annual commencements. 

Rosie McCormack, 22, graduated from Fordham this year. She was valedictorian.

Courtesy Rosie McCormack

“The digital format is less than ideal,” added McCormack, who spent four years studying at the Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. “But it was a way to connect and as good as it could have possibly been.” 

In her address to Columbia University’s School of Social Work grads that streamed on May 20, sociologist Ruha Benjamin, associate professor of African Studies at Princeton University in New Jersey, focused on lessons, wake-up calls and turbulent times.

“I want graduates to think about their work in terms of a larger purpose,” she told MarketWatch, adding that although her address isn’t framed solely around the pandemic, it adds its own rich textures.

“If this virus has taught us anything,” she said in the address, “it’s that something that is invisible can be deadly. This also means that seemingly small things, small decisions, small actions can have exponential effects in the other direction — affirming life and invigorating society.”

Last week, CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodríguez recorded remarks that will go out to various schools celebrating commencement events in May and June, including Queens College, Brooklyn College, Lehman College, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and others. 

“Graduation is my absolute favorite time of the academic year,” he told MarketWatch. “It’s a great time for students and family.” 

Even with the harsh realities of the pandemic, which he addresses in his speech, he believed it was important to “launch graduates into the world on a note that is upbeat and aspirational. Now we need that more than ever.”

CUNY Chancellor Felix V. Matos Rodríguez recorded remarks that will go out to various schools celebrating commencement.

Courtesy Felix V. Matos

Along with optimism, resilience is another main theme of his remarks.

“One key to success is being able to adapt, and these students have had the most dramatic taste of that,” he said. “They have resilience and adaptability in their toolbox. I think that it is indispensable to navigate all that life brings and will contribute to bring.”

On Long Island, Stony Brook University is streaming its virtual graduation ceremony Friday at 11 a.m. The school’s president, Michael Bernstein, says crafting the address was a delicate balance. “I didn’t want to tiptoe around the elephant in the room — COVID-19,” he says. “That’s on everyone’s mind.” 

For his taped speech, which he delivers in a fire engine-red robe from a university theater, he emphasizes that unforeseen events can rock your world. 

“People make their own history, but they never do so just as they please,” he notes in the speech. “They do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but rather in unanticipated situations. You are confronting challenges today that are neither easy nor fair. … Accept adversity — acknowledge that problems are a misfortune only if you think of them that way.” 

In a May 15 toast to the Class of 2020 at Wagner College on Staten Island, Jeffrey Kraus, provost and vice president for academic affairs, applauded students for their “persistence, resilience and determination.” In a nod to school spirit, he said, “You exemplify what we mean by ‘Wagner Strong.’”

Also read: Class of 2020 was to enter the strongest job market in 50 years — and now graduates’ earnings will lag peers’ for a decade

At St. John’s University, President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw’s speech streams on May 31. His address, said a school spokesman, will echo remarks he made to graduates in his end-of-the-semester email. 

“More so than any recent graduating class, you have been uniquely challenged,” Gempesaw noted in that email. “You have seen up close the uncertainty of what can happen in life, and most importantly, you have adapted and thrived. You are entering a world sorely in need of new, thoughtful, and bold ideas.”

While New York University’s traditional commencement gathering held at Yankee Stadium has been postponed until further notice, the school toasted its graduates in a streaming celebration on May 20.

“Well, class of 2020, this is not how it was supposed to be,” said NYU President Andrew Hamilton. “The end of a semester that should have been filled with joyous communal celebration instead was marked by disruption, separation and uncertainty…. As one commentator said, history doesn’t get bigger than this.”

For Hayley Gruenspan, 21, who earned a dramatic writing degree at NYU, marking the end of college virtually “was a bit of a letdown. You can’t replace the experience of an in-person graduation,” she told MarketWatch. 

Still, she wore a black mortarboard as she viewed the streaming event on Wednesday with her parents on the Upper West Side in Manhattan. She appreciated the fact that close friends in New Jersey were watching along with them. 

Related: Colleges balance student safety with falling revenues during coronavirus — here’s how universities will be transformed in the fall

In an inspired note, Hamilton expressed that though COVID-19 is the big, game-changing story of 2020, it’s not the only story. 

“While this crisis bonds you, it doesn’t define you,” he said. “Just as these last few months do not define your entire NYU experience…. No virus can take that away.”

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