The Class of 2020 — Cornell’s 152nd graduating class and the first to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic — returned to campus Sunday for their commencement ceremony, 16 months after their original graduation day.
Attendance at Schoellkopf Field, where commencement was held, included around 2,000 graduates and 4,000 guests. The celebration was limited to administration and members of the Class of 2020 and their families, as well as August 2019 and December 2019 graduates. The event was also live-streamed for students and family members who couldn’t make it to Ithaca.
Traditionally, commencement marks the graduation of the current senior class, where deans of the colleges give students their diplomas. This time, neither of those things were true, since the Class of 2020 officially graduated over a year ago and already received their diplomas in the mail.
According to lecturer Corey Ryan Earle ’07, American studies, this commencement celebration is also the first at Cornell to be held in September.
The ceremony comes after multiple delays and cancelations of planned events for the Class of 2020, including a canceled June 2021 commencement ceremony due to COVID-19 concerns.
In March 2020, President Pollack promised graduates an in-person commencement in Ithaca, but was unable to say when or where — only that it would happen, and would be “joyous!”
Sixteen months months later, that promise was finally fulfilled Sunday.
Graduates and their families heard from members of the administration throughout the ceremony on Sunday afternoon, including Provost Michael Kotlikoff, Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi and President Martha Pollack — with special guest Leslie Odom Jr., who attended virtually.
Pollack began her remarks by emphasizing her gratitude for the family, teachers, mentors and friends who made commencement possible and shaped the members of the Class of 2020, before asking students to shout out “thank you” to their family in the stands and the livestream camera in whatever language they speak at home.
Acknowledging that her primary mode of communication with the University community during the pandemic has been pandemic jargon-filled emails, she promised that this speech would include none of a long list of now-familiar terms like “unprecedented,” “proactive” and “contact tracing.”
Having come to Cornell as president while the Class of 2020 was nearing the end of its freshman year, Pollack said that they had already made Cornell their home while she was still getting lost on campus — and that they took that connection with them when COVID-19 hit.
“[After being forced off campus by the pandemic] you never really got to say goodbye. As the months passed, instead of looking back, you started looking forward. You started jobs and graduate programs but Cornell came with you [in] what you had learned here,” Pollack said. “And wherever you went, no matter how far you traveled, you knew that, like Odysseus, one day you would come home again to Ithaca.”
Pollack said that, while homecoming weekend is a time to celebrate the achievements of the graduating and alumni classes and reunite on campus, it isn’t by any means the end of the Class of 2020’s relationship with their alma mater.
“What this commencement is not is a time to say goodbye, because wherever you go from here, no matter how long it’s been, each of you will always be a Cornellian,” Pollack said. “Wherever Cornellians are, Cornell will always be with you, and Cornell will always be your home.”
However, the speech was not all celebratory. Pollack took a moment of silence in honor of the community members lost to COVID-19.
Later, the Class of 2020 was joined via Zoom by actor, singer and Broadway star Leslie Odom Jr.
Speaking for just over 20 minutes, Odom told stories about his family life, recounted his beginnings in theater, life lessons and joked about getting extra credit on his speech.
Odom’s major lesson to the Class of 2020 was in the power of intentions, which he said have determined everything in his life from job opportunities to friendships to the food he ate.
“Whether or not I knew it, my life was organizing itself in front of me based on the deepest desires of my heart,” Odom said. “My purest and clearest intentions were determining the way my life was unfolding.”
Speaking about his family, Odom recalled his little sister’s graduation from college, and the impact it had on him to have known her all her life and see that her eyes were the same as a college graduate as they were when she was a baby.
“There was something of her that was present and knowable on the day my parents brought her home, hours old … and that thing remained [at graduation]. I had this profound realization,” Odom said. “She was always her.”
As a new father, Odom said he believes parents get five lessons that they can impart to their children. He shared the three that he said he has figured out so far with the graduates: First, know that you’re enough; second, learn how to make and keep a friend; third, remember that the only thing you will ever really be ashamed of is being unkind.
After the speeches, each college dean had their respective graduating students rise to be recognized, with Pollack formally bestowing upon each set of graduates the titles that they earned at Cornell.
Closing the ceremony, Associate Vice President for Alumni Affairs and Development Michelle Vaeth ’98 encouraged the Class of 2020 to continue their relationship with Cornell by planning the class reunions, volunteering and visiting campus and also by connecting with Cornellians across the world.
“The chances are pretty good that a Cornellian you may meet, whether or not you spent time together on campus, could have a profound impact upon you, your career and your life,” Vaeth said. “I know that I have found this to be true over and over again.”
After singing the alma mater, the Class of 2020 exited to the sound of the Cornell “Fight Song.”