Commencement 2020: a shared ceremony, lived through a screen

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Commencement 2020: a shared ceremony, lived through a screen


Class of 2020's seniors, masters' students, medical students log on for graduations held remotely in response to COVID-19


Clara Gutman Argemí


Brown Daily Herald


Brown Daily Herald


May 25, 2020

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Scattered across three continents, Jonathan He ’20 and his friend group tuned in to watch Sunday’s online Commencement ceremony together. They were expecting the event, which began at 1 p.m. EST, to last hours. It ran for just over 20 minutes.

His friend Dorian Charpentier ’20, who believed that the ceremony began at 1:30, thought he had time to take a shower before tuning in. “So I stepped into the shower at 1 (and) came out of the shower just to find out that it had already ended,” he said.

“We were like, dude, you were showering the whole time through your graduation!” He said.

The friend group joined other graduating seniors, masters’ students, PhD students and medical students in an unusual graduation. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University canceled its in-person Commencement and Reunion Weekend, holding virtual degree conferral ceremonies instead. The class of 2020 will experience their in-person rite of passage on campus next May, alongside the class of 2021.

Will Zhou ’20, president of the Undergraduate Council of Students, was the only student speaker at the college graduation. Traditionally, the University selects two senior orators to speak at commencement. In his speech, Zhou acknowledged the difficulty of the current circumstances, and encouraged his classmates to reflect on their memories of their four years at Brown as a whole.

The day the University announced students would have to leave campus, Zhou was “lying awake in my dorm room just crying, wondering why I was going to miss being in my tiny twin XL bed, that was barely long enough, and my 150-square-feet room so much,” he said. “Looking back now, it probably wasn’t because of the space itself, but because of the memories. It’s the same loving people and that ever-vibrant Brown spirit that have shined so brightly in this moment.”

He appreciated Zhou’s speech, and was also “quite moved” when President Christina Paxson P’19 asked seniors to stand up before congratulating them. “At the time I was quite struck by it, because after all it’s a moment that means a lot to me,” He added.

Sam Flomenhoft ’20 also enjoyed Zhou’s speech, telling The Herald that “the student speaker was far and away the best part.”

The virtual ceremony also meant that students’ families could watch the event together, albeit remotely. “It was nice that it was on YouTube and easy to watch, because both of my grandparents who weren’t going to be able to come were able to watch it,” said Jason Traum ’20. “Obviously it wasn’t what we expected, but they were really happy to be a part of that.”

But seniors were surprised that the ceremony was so short. Some expected that Paxson would read through the names of the graduating members of the class, which did not happen.

“We all thought it was going to be, like, four hours long,” He said. “I thought President Paxson was going to read everybody’s names, one after another, for the whole afternoon.”

Flomenhoft agreed. “I wished they would have scrolled through our names. I would have wanted to sit through a normal length Brown graduation,” he said, adding that “we could have either had another student speaker or an outside speaker or both.”

Paxson acknowledged the atypical situation in her address to the graduating seniors by drawing parallels with previous classes who had to miss their May Commencement due to historic circumstances.

During World War II, the University held three semesters so that students could graduate early to fight in the war. In spring 1970, Brown students joined a New England-wide strike after Kent State students who were protesting the war in Cambodia were gunned down. Final exams were optional that semester.

“This experience someday will create a sense of camaraderie among the class of 2020,” Paxson said. “I see this among other groups of alumni who came through Brown at very pivotal moments in history.”

This sense of unity is particularly present for graduating medical students, some of whom have joined the ranks of healthcare workers fighting COVID-19 after the University gave them the choice to graduate early to help confront the pandemic.

Sheyla Medina MD ’20, speaking at the medical student’s graduation, said that “today might feel slightly contradictory. … Instead of walking to the First Unitarian Church on Benefit Street, you might be rounding on your patients as you wrap up another day in your early introduction to residency.”

During the ceremony, medical students logged onto a Zoom call to take the physician’s oath, donning their white coats from backyards and living rooms. Many beamed as they spoke the words together, their voices slightly asynchronous due to the videocall’s time lag.

Abdullah Shihipar ’20 MPH, who is graduating with a Master’s of Public Health, also recognized the atypical circumstances in his speech to postgraduate students.

“I’m not going to say everything will be okay,” Shihipar said. But “pandemic or not, our job is to go into the world and be a part of other people’s support systems.”

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