For Class of 2020 grads, new degrees and congratulations arrive, virtually
Jill Kimball and Office of University Communications staff
From locations across the globe, thousands of new Brown graduates and loved ones tuned in to Virtual Degree Conferral celebrations that honored achievements and offered words of wisdom for lives and careers to come.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Masks, not mortarboards. Living rooms in lieu of the lawn at the First Baptist Church in America. Congrats from classmates and alumni in text-message chats and Zoom calls, not hugs and high-fives in the midst of a celebratory procession down College Street.
No, this was decidedly not graduation day in traditional Brown style.
The events of Sunday, May 24 — Virtual Degree Conferral day for the undergraduate, graduate and medical students in Brown University’s Class of 2020 — unfolded much differently than any might have imagined just a few months ago, when novel coronavirus had not yet reached the Eastern seaboard.
Yet none of that took anything away from the academic excellence and hard-earned achievements that members of the class pursued and accomplished on their journeys toward graduation. And not even a global health crisis could fully dampen spirits on this momentous day.
Across the United States and the globe, thousands of Brown graduates and their loved ones tuned in to Virtual Degree Conferral celebrations, exchanged jubilant well-wishes, shared photos and videos of family celebrations — and, as ever, looked toward the future with a mix of excitement and nervousness.
In an address to graduating seniors, Brown President Christina H. Paxson expressed confidence that Brown’s graduates are certain to thrive, even as they launch into lives and careers at an especially uncertain time.
“There is no doubt that COVID-19 will influence your lives,” Paxson said. “But it will not define your lives. You will. You will define your lives, just as you have defined your time as students while at Brown... Go out and take on the world, even if you have to do it virtually for a little while longer. I know you will be spectacular.”
Paxson predicted that in the decades to come, members of the Class of 2020 will find a strong sense of camaraderie, having shared memories of a difficult, unprecedented time in University history, when a pandemic moved degree conferral online and delayed traditional Commencement celebrations until Spring 2021.
Rarely in the two and a half centuries since Brown’s founding has Commencement been cancelled or delayed. Twice in the wake of the Revolutionary War, the University shifted plans. During WW-II, Brown held graduation ceremonies in February, June and October for students who fast-tracked their education to join the war. And in 1970, after students at a Kent State University protest were gunned down, Brown students organized a strike with support from faculty and administrators, and Commencement celebrations were significantly pared down.
“I hope you’ll get to see members of the Class of 1970 next May, when they’re celebrating their 50th Reunion — one year late — cheering you on as you march through the Van Wickle Gates — also one year late,” Paxson told graduates on Sunday. “My most fervent hope is that by that time, we can truly talk about this pandemic in past tense.”
Remarks by Undergraduate Council of Students President William Zhou, who accepted his bachelor’s degree on behalf of the rest of the graduating class, seemed to echo Paxson’s predictions of increased affinity between those graduating this year. The computer science and economics concentrator noted that the Brown community’s collective response to the public health crisis has proven its closeness and strength of purpose.
“We enter a world in which this will not be the last or even the greatest challenge we will face,” he said. “What these past few weeks show, however, is that when people seem the farthest way, it’s not only possible but more important than ever that we keep them close.”
Brown excels at teaching students to value and validate the experiences of others as they find their purpose, Zhou said, instilling in them a compassion that will prove especially helpful in these trying times.
Brown “has consistently fostered in us a foundation for how we can best approach and contribute to the world around us,” Zhou said. “We have learned why we must value doing what we love and what is right. We have learned why we must validate and listen to experiences that are different from our own. And we have learned how to provide a supporting hand.”
Student voices on screen
Though the 2,657 graduates who received degrees on Sunday were dispersed across dozens of countries and time zones, many found the opportunity for a shared, synced celebration, tuning in to undergraduate, graduate and medical Virtual Degree Conferral ceremonies at 1 p.m. Eastern Time.
The platform was new and most of the content was prerecorded to enable participation by all graduates, but some elements of Brown tradition remained. University Chaplain Janet Cooper Nelson opened each ceremony with an invocation; two featured student a cappella performances of the national anthem and Brown’s alma mater; and perhaps most crucially, in all three ceremonies, student voices took center stage.
Dr. Sheyla Medina watched the Warren Alpert Medical School ceremony from her new home in Northern California, where she will soon begin a residency at the University of California San Francisco. She was one of 48 medical students who chose to graduate a month early, an option the medical school extended to students who expressed interest in joining the fight against COVID-19.
In an address to fellow graduates, titled “The Strength in Your Story,” Medina celebrated the cohort’s drive and capacity for empathy.
“You walked me through your story,” she said. “I saw myself in you, and you saw yourself in me. You bought a sense of relief knowing that the field of medicine is limitless in the hands of people who dream big.”
Medina, a first-generation college student from Peru, said she believes that courage, curiosity and kindness are the three most crucial attributes needed to practice medicine in these challenging times, and that her classmates had exhibited all three in excess during their four years together.
“Never have I pranced from milestone to milestone with a group ever-ready to turn silver linings into gold,” she said. “I’ve seen it, I’ve lived it with you, and now I catch my breath and smile at the friendships that have made medical school an unforgettable experience.”
After Medina’s address, the 137 new doctors from the medical school’s graduating class joined for a live element of the ceremony, reciting together the Physician’s Oath, a tradition at the school since the students of the Class of 1975 prepared it.
Watching from homes in Providence just blocks away from a quiet Brown campus were Abdullah Shihipar and Mira Nikolova, who spoke during a combined master’s and Ph.D. Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony.
Shihipar, who earned a master of public health, urged his fellow students to venture into the world and support others. When he first arrived at Brown, Shihipar said he felt impostor syndrome. Over time, he drew support from the community members around him — from the laboratory where he investigated opioid use disorder to the network of shuttle drivers who helped him get around town.
“Everyone I interacted with at Brown provided me with some kind of support,” Shihipar said. “You see, what we do in life is never just a product of our own hard work. Thousands of people contribute to our growth as human beings — our parents, family, friends, educators — they all play a role in shaping who we are as people.”
Shihipar reminded graduates that they have a duty, no matter what they do after graduation, to understand and accept the role they play in shaping others, particularly in this time of global crisis.
Nikolova, too, urged her fellow graduates to make a positive impact with their degrees, a “critical task” in the midst of a pandemic. A Ph.D. graduate in Slavic studies and a native of Sofia, Bulgaria, Nikolova was one of countless students who defended their dissertations online this spring, transforming a typically cathartic day into one that, for many, felt strangely subdued.
In her address, she compared Ph.D. students to saguaro cacti: Both, she explained, can thrive in challenging conditions and provide sustenance for the greater ecosystem.
“At first glance, the saguaro cactus appears to be a lone figure, standing out in the desert landscape — yet as it turns out, it is inextricably connected to almost every organism around it," Nikolova said. "May we do like the saguaro cactus: give back to our University, to our home communities and our future ones. Whether it is by way of research, teaching or service, we have the potential to leave a permanent positive mark."
A global celebration
Typically, Memorial Day Weekend — Brown’s traditional timeline for Commencement and Reunion Weekend — offers a time of celebration not just for new graduates, but also for Brown alumni. In most years, alumni and family members descend on College Hill by the thousands to attend reunions, academic forums and the Commencement and Reunion procession, where they greet and congratulate the newest class of graduates.
Like members of the Class of 2020, this year’s reunion classes migrated their celebrations to cyberspace, where they not only commingled and reminisced with one another but also offered their best wishes to the newest graduates.
Some, like Class of 1987 graduate Siobhan Dolan, were able to do so in person. At her home in Scarsdale, New York, she hosted a drive-by graduation ceremony for her daughter Niamh Klein, who earned a Brown bachelor of arts on Sunday. Their celebration was complete with a blown-up photo of the Van Wickle Gates in the front yard. As friends and relatives drove by, they dropped off canned foods for the family to donate to a local pantry, and they wished Klein well as she prepares to join Urban Teachers in Washington, D.C., once schools reopen.
“We are a big Brown family,” Dolan said. “Lots of us have gone to Brown and walked through the Van Wickle Gates” — so it was only right to carry on the tradition, even from afar.
Other Brown alumni and University faculty and staff pitched in with celebratory messages and words of wisdom though a congratulatory video. Among the familiar faces from campus and notable names, Brown Class of 2001 graduate John Krasinski — actor, writer, director and Baccalaureate speaker at Commencement 2019 — offered thoughts from the backdrop of “Some Good News.”
“I’m sure you’re feeling like this is the most bizarre set of circumstances, because... well, because it is,” Krasinski said. “You have achieved nonetheless. You have succeeded nonetheless.”
Shihipar, in his remarks to the graduating master’s students, urged all Brown graduates to put those achievements and successes to work, even and especially in the face of whatever challenges may lie ahead.
“I have no idea what the future holds, but I do know what this moment demands of us...” Shihipar said. “Pandemic or not, our job is to go into the world and be part of other people’s support systems. We are at a critical juncture. Not only must we take care of the sick and vulnerable today, but we also have an opportunity to reshape the world of tomorrow.”