It was a Penn Commencement like never before.
Live-streamed for socially distant viewers around the city, nation, and world, the Class of 2020 was lauded on May 18 with an online tribute—the “first” University-wide 264th Commencement—as in-person festivities have been postponed to next year.
Thrilled to celebrate the commendable academic accomplishments of this year’s graduating class, Penn President Amy Gutmann also expressed her unwavering pride in all the students who have taken on this semester’s adversity with, as she’s said before, “flying red and blue colors.”
“Right now, I want you to take a mental snapshot of what you’ve already overcome, of where you are, and, yes, of how you feel,” Gutmann said to graduates. “Your class has shared a world-changing experience. Years from now, after your on-campus Commencement, whenever you get together for Penn reunions, for weddings, or even just reminiscing with a Penn friend, you will talk of these times not only as a challenge but as a common bond. This will always be a touchstone for your class.”
It was a bittersweet moment for Jessica Davis, a graduating health and societies major from Manchester, England, who said seeing a video snippet in high school of Penn’s grand Commencement helped convince her to officially become a Quaker.
“I sat my parents down and I said, ‘Watch this, I want you guys to be there in the stands of Franklin Field in four years,’” Davis recalled. Though she was unable to have such a longed-for experience—at least for now—Davis said circumstances could never stain her past three-and-a-half years “of incredible memories and opportunities, and the people I’ve met who I will cherish for life.”
A celebration she’d never imagine before, but still made the most of, Davis, captain of women’s squash at Penn, tuned in to virtual Commencement with her seven also-graduating roommates—all Penn women’s soccer players—in their West Philadelphia apartment. She happily accepted her friends’ nomination to announce all their names and majors during their “household commencement ceremony.”
The Class of 2020 boasts 7,500-plus undergraduate and graduate students from more than 100 countries and all 50 states. In a matter of days this past March, due to the coronavirus pandemic, students at Penn and beyond were tasked with a momentous change full of significant challenges.
But, as Rev. Charles “Chaz” Howard, the University Chaplain, reminded viewers of the virtual Commencement, the University is, and always has been, so much more than Market, Chestnut, Walnut, Locust, and Spruce streets. Penn is more than its buildings, it is more than a place.
“When in many different places,” he said, “we’re finding that we can still come together, as one University.”
Christina Steele was celebrating from afar in Valley Stream, New York, back at her parents’ house with her four siblings. The psychology major, who also minored in religious studies and biological basis of behavior, was reflecting on how the Class of 2020 missed out on numerous monumental, end-of-the-year experiences. At the same time, she’s found a silver lining in the past few months—an opportunity, ironically, for reconnection.
“When on campus and with the day to day, you are focusing on the next thing you have to do,” Steele said. “I feel like this situation has made people take a step back and actually reconsider things that are really important. I’ve been spending a lot of time reconnecting with friends—those who I’ve kept in touch with only from time to time—but we’re being drawn together by having this shared experience that no one was expecting.”
During his invocation, Howard shared how the “gift of humanity” is the ability to hold multiple emotions at the same time.
“Thus, even while grieving, we can feel pride. While missing each other, we can feel joy. While nervous, we can be full of gratitude,” he said. “And so during this Commencement, unlike any other, we celebrate a class unlike any other. May these graduates see challenges not just as moments to survive, but as moments to serve. May they see interruptions as opportunities. May they, even through tears, see catastrophes as callings.”
The virtual Commencement, which began at 11 a.m. and lasted about 45 minutes, opened with the impressive talent of the Penn Marching Band, a beautiful rendition of the national anthem by graduating senior Duval Courteau, showcased a touching tribute through interviews with various graduating students about their time at Penn, highlighted this year’s honorary degree recipients, and even included a thoughtful message from Commencement speaker Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who promised to be on campus for the postponed celebration, too.
“If there is anything to be said for this strange time in which we find ourselves, it is this: that for you graduating at this time, is, among other things, an opportunity,” said Adichie, an acclaimed author. “An opportunity to start to think about the kind of world we want to remake.”
Provost Wendell Pritchett highlighted the University’s academic honor awardees, and all the deans of Penn’s 12 schools shared support and congratulatory messages—as well as the conferral of degrees—from their very own homes. Graduate School of Education Dean Pam Grossman assured students: “Although the ceremony is virtual, the degrees you earned are very real.”
Students, family members, friends, alumni, faculty, staff, and more, shared congratulatory messages via social media, tagging #PennGrad, throughout the online celebration. A glimmer of light in the current situation, said Shichun “Asminet” Ling, who graduated with her Ph.D. in criminology, is that several of her family members who wouldn’t have been able to travel from California and China had the opportunity to watch the ceremony online.
Although bummed to not be dressing up in her cap and gown, she said she appreciates a day of relaxation before she begins her next chapter as a tenure-track professor at Cal State LA.
“To an extent, my time as a graduate student here at Penn has taught me how to be adaptive and flexible,” Ling said. “Things will change and they can change very quickly—and there will be times when we have to basically go along for the ride and make the best of the situation. It’s been a really great experience in learning all these valuable life lessons and being comfortable in knowing that regardless of what happens, I think I can handle it.”
Promise Adebayo-Ige, a chemical and biomolecular engineering major from Eastvale in Southern California had a similar sentiment, while reminiscing on his time at Penn.
“I would say, Penn is tough,” he said. “It’s definitely well-worth the rigor. It challenges you, just being here. It builds you up.”
During the online ceremony, Gutmann walked students—virtually—through campus, stopping along the way at a handful of sites that represent deep meaning for Penn’s newest graduates. For instance, an ornate gate next to Houston Hall showed a carving of the Latin words for “We will find a way or we will make one,” a telling message for a class that has only marched forward during the hardest of times.
Gutmann’s final stop was at Franklin Field, where Commencement traditionally begins, and showcased an enduring clip from a speech Franklin D. Roosevelt gave at that very location during the Great Depression. Roosevelt said to the packed stadium, “To some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected.”
“I believe his words hold special meaning for your class,” said Gutmann.
“Etched in stone, forged in iron, written on our hearts, the Penn story echoes across campus,” Gutmann continued. “It speaks of resilience, courage, and common cause, of dark storms chased by brighter days. The story of the Class of 2020 speaks the same. It is clear that of your generation, much is expected, and I am proud to say that so far you have done beautifully.”
Gabriel Barnett, a political science major from New York City, watched Commencement with his roommates, while Facetiming and Zooming with family and friends. Sure, he said, he is closing his undergraduate years at Penn—ones full of adventure and ample learning experiences—but he fully intends on staying involved as an alumnus.
“I don’t see this as the end of my time at Penn or my membership in the Penn community,” he said.
His mom, Jennifer Peck, chatting separately, described a “very special spirit unique to Penn,” which speaks volumes to her son’s University experience, and his desire to stay involved after graduating.
“As a parent I feel enormous gratitude,” Peck said. “Penn has given Gabriel the opportunity to explore, to learn, and to develop in every facet of his life while being supported by outstanding faculty and advisers, and many meaningful friendships. It has been thrilling to watch Gabriel eagerly take advantage of and pursue so much of what Penn has to offer. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”
The online celebration concluded with a stunning performance—a “blockbuster finale,” Gutmann said—by graduating students involved in Penn’s A Cappella Council, and featured a very special, surprise guest: EGOT winner John Legend.
Legend, a proud 1999 College of Arts & Sciences alumnus, played piano while singing the iconic “The Red and Blue.” A cherished song that Penn students will undoubtedly remember for the rest of their lives—to mark an occasion that will surely never be forgotten.