Dressed in caps, gowns, tassels and graduation cords, many students in the Class of 2021 lined Schoellkopf Field this weekend for the first in-person graduation since December 2019 — celebrating commencement in four separate ceremonies, surrounded by masked friends and family in the stands and joined by others who tuned in virtually.
Across the ceremonies, 4,500 students graduated in distanced chairs, along with 8,700 guests who attended to honor the 153rd graduating class.
In a speech to the graduates on Saturday during the first ceremony, President Martha Pollack reflected on how students had persevered through this pandemic year, encouraging them to approach their post-graduation life with similar resilience. Before the speech, veterinary students waved inflated gloves to the music as the masked crowds took their seats.
Pollack began by acknowledging the significance of a hybrid graduation, telling graduates to thank their family and friends in the stands as well as those who watched remotely.
“Every time I stand up here in a Cornell cap and gown, I tell a new class of graduates how great it is to be here, how happy I am to see them and how proud I am of everything they have accomplished,” Pollack said. “But this year, being here with you in person is better than great.”
Pollack acknowledged the losses that many had faced throughout the pandemic.
“I want to pause, for this next moment, to acknowledge the people who are with us today only in our hearts — the students whose graduation this should have been, and everyone we’ve lost over the last year to COVID-19,” Pollack said.
Pollack recapped the past year, describing the decision to close campus and the shock and grief students felt as they were whisked out of Ithaca. She spoke about the challenges of the following semesters, including online courses, social distancing, surveillance testing and, for some, time spent in quarantine.
“As hard as it was, you did what you needed to do. You kept your masks on, and you kept your distance. You met your friends outside, even in the Ithaca winter, and you got your vaccines as soon as you could,” Pollack said. “You showed up for your surveillance tests, and maybe you did some time in the Statler. You did your Daily Check, and you checked in on each other.”
Pollack credited students for the relative success of Cornell’s COVID-19 mitigation efforts over the past few semesters.
“Of all the countless decisions that have kept Cornell safe, and healthy and moving forward — of all the data and expertise that went into these last 447 days — your decisions were the ones that mattered most,” Pollack said. “Nothing I did in Day Hall … could have taken the place of a community willing to work together for its shared wellbeing.”
Pollack encouraged students to prepare for drastic changes throughout their life. She urged them to adapt and support one another in the face of future challenges — reminding graduates to be kind, communicate across differences, listen, learn and make personal sacrifices when needed to support their communities.
“When that happens — the next time your world turns upside down — I want you to remember something,” Pollack said. “Remember that you’ve been there before. Remember that you got through it. And remember how.”