No Zoom for you: an alumni ceremony for the Class of 2020
Yale’s Class of 2020 finally got its day in the sun.
Twenty-six months and seemingly a zillion Zoom calls after they were last together on campus, members of the Class of ’20 and some members of the Class of ’21 today paraded into Old Campus in their caps and gowns to celebrate their commencement with family and friends.
“You are no ordinary group of graduates and this is no ordinary graduation ceremony,” said Yale President Peter Salovey. “We are here to learn from you.”
It was a celebration two years in the making.
Students in the Class of ’20 were more than halfway through their senior year — they were on spring break — when public health concerns from the COVID-19 pandemic led Yale to pause on-campus activities. Classes for the remainder of the semester, as well as finals, were moved online.
So was commencement. The event that spring went global, as graduates, many wearing their cap and gown at home, took part in an online commencement. But Yale promised them there would come a day when they’d return to campus for a proper send-off.
And now that day had arrived, complete with music, balloons, bells, and flags.
“My heart is so full to look at you,” said University Chaplain Sharon M.K. Kugler during a prayer to begin the ceremony.
President Salovey lauded the graduates for the way they conducted themselves as the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted daily life — and for how they’ve acquitted themselves in the two years since.
“You made sacrifices. You overcame adversity,” Salovey said. “You persevered. This ceremony, delayed by historical, global disruption, is all the more meaningful and joyous, because of your hard work and commitment to the common good.”
Salovey noted how rare it is for a university president to give formal remarks twice to a graduating class. Then again, he said, no one could have predicted the events that the Class of 2020 has experienced.
“You gave up big moments and missed out on quieter ones,” he said. “But the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic did not define your time at Yale. Instead, you are remembered for your compassion, strength, and character.”
The 2020 festivities actually started the day before, when Yale College Dean Marvin Chun, the Yale Alumni Association, ’20 class officers, and the Class Day committee formally welcomed the Class of ’20 and other returning alumni with a reception on Beinecke Plaza.
More than 1,200 students from the Yale College Class of 2020 returned for the ceremony — roughly 90% of the class. Also, several of Yale’s graduate and professional schools invited graduates from the Class of 2021 to attend.
In all, there were about 10,000 people taking part in events, including guests and faculty members.
“My daughter was so happy to see her friends again,” said Kate Zhang of Pasadena, Calif., who had scoped out a good spot to take a photo of Sofia Menemenlis ’20, who studied geology and global affairs and was a resident of Timothy Dwight College.
“I’m so glad all of these students got to have this ritual and this ceremony,” Zhang said.
“I feel great,” said Kweku Djan ’20, a former resident of Davenport College who majored in sociology. He’s now in medical school at the University of California-San Francisco. “It’s a little strange, but in a positive way,” he said.
“We’re very grateful to be here — filled with gratitude,” said Lisa Greenberg of Morganville, N.J. She and her husband Eliot were on hand to cheer for daughter Jessica Greenberg, who majored in economics and resided at Morse College.
“We weren’t sure this day would come,” Eliot Greenberg said. “We’re so happy the kids will get this closure.”
The ceremony was also a time to celebrate the 2020 recipients of honorary degrees: computer scientist Michael I. Jordan, who attended the ceremony; immunologist Jim Allison; legal scholar Jerome Alan Cohen ’51 B.A., ’55 J.D.; public servant Christiana Figueres; soprano Renée Fleming; composer and musician Herbie Hancock; the late theatrical set designer Ming Cho Lee, who died in October 2020; evolutionary geneticist Svante Pääbo; and playwright Paula Vogel.
Meanwhile, members of the Class of 2020 are already making their mark. During his remarks, Salovey took a moment to mention Margaret Kellogg and her work with Yale team behind the innovative COVID-19 test SalivaDirect, Paul Gross and his development of a device to capture carbon emissions from semi trucks, and Christina Pao’s work examining the rise of xenophobia.
“As I look out on Cross Campus, I see a force for progress and positive change,” Salovey said. “I see in you the compassion of the human spirit.”