PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — When Mira Nikolova and Abdullah Shihipar addressed their fellow graduates at Brown’s degree ceremonies in 2020, the two were not on stage in front of a lawn packed with friends and family, but in front of their computer screens. Masks replaced mortarboards, and there was no sea of graduates processing down College Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic’s arrival led to the postponement of the Class of 2020’s Commencement ceremonies, with achievements instead recognized through a Virtual Degree Conferral ceremony.
But this month, after a two-year delay, Nikolova and Shihipar will return to Brown to celebrate the time-honored tradition of Commencement and Reunion Weekend the way they first imagined. And each will have the chance to address their fellow 2020 graduates in-person, at a dedicated Graduate Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 28.
A lot can change in two years, and Nikolova and Shihipar had no way of knowing how pertinent their original speeches would be to the class of doctoral and master’s students who graduated during one of the most unprecedented periods in recent history.
In her original address, Nikolova — who earned a Ph.D. in Slavic studies — compared graduate students to cacti.
“The cacti thrive in very challenging conditions in the desert — they blossom with beautiful flowers, and they provide sustenance for pretty much every creature in their ecosystem,” she said. “Ph.D. students go through challenging and isolating moments — the process is not for the faint of heart. But we have so much potential to make a positive impact, and I think we should give ourselves credit for that.”
Meanwhile, Shihipar, who earned a master of public health, urged his classmates to find ways to utilize their degrees in ways that advance all of society, not just themselves.
“Given that so many people have supported you, your job when you go out into the world is to then become part of other people's support systems,” he said. There’s an immense responsibility and opportunity right now for people to use their degrees in a way that helps others.”
In this Q&A, the two discuss what’s changed since they received their graduate degrees in 2020, what’s next for them, and what they hope to impart to their fellow Class of 2020 graduates as they return to College Hill for a true in-person Commencement and Reunion Weekend.