NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt confided in the Rutgers Class of 2020 that this was not the moment anyone had envisioned for them in a recorded message that was part of an unprecedented virtual commencement ceremony.
It was a theme echoed throughout an hour-long celebration for graduates of Rutgers University-New Brunswick and Rutgers Biomedical and Health Sciences viewed Sunday on the university’s commencement website, Facebook and YouTube channel. The virtual ceremony was punctuated throughout with selections of videos submitted by about 450 students who shared joyful messages reflecting on their proudest accomplishments and favorite memories of their time at Rutgers.
The video also featured Jhanvi Virani, president of the Rutgers University Student Assembly walking on a deserted College Avenue campus, ringing the historic Old Queens bell and sharing her thoughts on the unusual end for the Class of 2020 who were forced to move off campus before spring break as a result of the COVID-19 public health crisis, not knowing that they would ultimately finish the semester apart.
“The world is different today, and some of us may still be asking what if the world as we know it doesn’t return,” said Ms. Virani, who is graduating with a degree in mathematics and computer science from the School of Arts and Sciences. “Maybe we should ask what if this is the opportunity we have all been waiting for to change the world.”
In a speech prerecorded earlier this month, Mr. Holt told students the coronavirus that turned their last year at Rutgers upside down and kept them apart at a time they should be celebrating together did not have to define them.
“Instead, be defined as the generation that helped remold the misshaped clay of this disaster into a better America,” Mr. Holt said, speaking as part of the university’s 254th anniversary commencement. “Let this moment confer your generation immunity from crippling fear, and know that the mantra can still stand for something: we are in this together.”
The virtual celebration was a culmination of a semester that was transformed for students in mid-March when the university transitioned to remote learning in response to the pandemic. Soon after, Gov. Phil Murphy ordered the state’s 9 million residents to stay home because of COVID-19, it became evident that students would not be returning.
“I never could have guessed the anomaly that would befall my senior year and graduation ceremony,” said Esha Rao, of East Brunswick, who graduated with a degree in astrophysics and professional physics from the School of Arts and Sciences, Honors ROTC program. “I always imagined myself graduating while wearing my cap and gown, flaunting my stoles and cords, and hugging friends and family. If there is one thing I have learned throughout college, it’s that you have to make the most of each and every opportunity, especially through times of change.”
Rutgers University President Robert Barchi – who is stepping down on June 30 to join the faculty after eight years at the helm – was joined by Rutgers-New Brunswick Chancellor Christopher Molloy and RBHS Chancellor Brian L. Strom in congratulating the new graduates and told them that he believes their Rutgers education provided them with “a clear sense of responsibility and civic purpose to work for a better world.”
“Some have had the burden of being undocumented and unsure of your future, or facing racial or ethnic discrimination, or enduring sexual assault, or losing a loved one unexpectedly,” Dr. Barchi said. “Each of you knows what it is like to work hard for what you achieve. Your Rutgers experience demands that of you.”
President Barchi – who was honored during the ceremony for his role in overseeing Rutgers through a period of enormous strides including the addition of an academic health division – conferred degrees on 13,057 Rutgers-New Brunswick and RBHS graduates.
Sharing his perspective on the global health pandemic, Mr. Holt told the graduates that they should be guided by knowledge, facts and science and be committed to doing a better job than those who came before them.
“Your challenge, Class of 2020, is to help bring us back,” said Mr. Holt, who received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letter degree along with Sandy L. Stewart, former chair of the Rutgers Board of Trustees and a member of the Board of Governors. “Even as you rush into the headwinds of a damaged economy, you will inherit the challenge of restoring the vitality that has long defined our economy and making it work in a world where we no longer live with blinders on.”
The award-winning journalist reflected on how dramatically the world changed in the last few months. Earlier this year, the Class of 2020 seemed destined to graduate into a booming economy filled with opportunity and promise.
“Today, you stand as a generation that, as it appears right now, will be defined by adversity much in the same way generations were defined by the Great Depression and World War II,’’ Mr. Holt said.
It’s a dramatic change for graduates who were born into a world of instant gratification where everything was a click or swipe away. “Now you celebrate scoring toilet paper and a canister of Lysol wipes on Amazon,” he said.
But Mr. Holt told students he believes that they are in the best position to tell the story of the pandemic: how it took loved ones away, stole their time-honored touchstone of college life, and squashed the belief that Americans were somehow immune to the worst of life’s horrors.
“You can be defined by the times or you can be defined by how you lived the times,” Mr. Holt said. “Years from now folks will be hard pressed to top the stories you will share with your kids and grandkids about the great pandemic of 2020. Let’s just say the whole ‘I walked 12 miles a day in the snow to go to school’ will finally be retired.”
Graduates like Justin Sontupe, who earned a degree in finance and economics from Rutgers Business School–Newark and New Brunswick, said he wished he could have commemorated the day with friends and family in the traditional sense and looks forward to the time when this public health crisis will pass and people will once again be able to gather and celebrate together.
“I think it’s great Rutgers is still finding a way to honor graduating seniors,” said Mr. Sontupe. “But I think my sadness comes from the fact that right now it isn’t safe to fill a stadium.”
Gov. Phil Murphy and Senators Cory Booker and Robert Menendez also delivered messages of congratulations during the virtual ceremony. Although Sunday’s celebration wasn’t the same as past years, Gov. Murphy told the graduates it was just as special.
“The finish line may look a little different than usual, but make no mistake what you have accomplished in crossing it is a great achievement worthy of celebration,” he said.