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Commencement 2020

President Schapiro: ‘The world needs your leadership more than ever’

Northwestern’s Commencement has been held in searing heat and driving rain, in chilly weather and in sun, but none in the school’s history has been quite like the 162nd Commencement on Friday.

Held virtually due to ongoing concerns about the spread of COVID-19, Northwestern’s Commencement brought together the graduating class of 2020 — from all corners of the world — in an online celebration of tremendous achievement, albeit amid the most difficult of circumstances, including a global pandemic and an equally global push for racial justice.

In her keynote address, Chicago Mayor Lori E. Lightfoot acknowledged both the staggering impact of the forces shaping the world — and the opportunities they present, urging the graduates to seize the moment by heeding the call to serve. She told them that now, more than ever, it is important to “be at the table.”

“These past 12 weeks have been hard, and recent weeks perhaps even harder,” she said. “We’ve all been through a lot. But through this struggle we’ve seen that there’s no shortcut to making things better, and there’s not one thing that turn things around.”

The Mayor urged graduates to “put yourself in the place where your voice and talent can be felt. And do your part to serve the public — to serve us.”

Thousands attended the 75-minute ceremony virtually, which honored 6,294 students who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. A livestream of the event was broadcast to viewers around the world and remains available for replay.

The virtual ceremony meant graduates, their families and the community could not gather in person. But that did not prevent them from gathering online to create special moments. A rousing rendition of “Pomp and Circumstance” opened the ceremony, performed — remotely — by Northwestern musicians who played beautifully together, despite being apart. 

The ceremony closed with an equally moving performance by the Bienen Contemporary Early Vocal Ensemble of the University Alma Mater, first in Latin and then in English.

In between, students and their families posted congratulatory notes on social media and posted pictures in their regalia online.

For the University and for the graduates, it was a historic moment in many important ways. Northwestern President Morton Schapiro called it a “commencement unlike the 161 that came before it,” noting that the pandemic made it impossible to gather in person. He also noted that the ceremony came “amid one of the most turbulent periods in our nation’s history, as we grapple with fundamental truths regarding racism and anti-blackness.”

President Schapiro spoke poignantly of how Commencement was held on Juneteenth, a day honoring the moment on June 19, 1865, when freedom from slavery was finally announced to the last corner of the nation.

“That was two-and-a-half long years after the Emancipation Proclamation took effect,” he said. “It is a reminder that the hard work of freedom and justice is endless.” 

The President acknowledged that the final weeks of the graduates’ time at Northwestern were not a time of celebration, but rather a time of crisis.

“The world needs your leadership more than ever, and I have confidence that you will rise to the occasion,” President Schapiro said. “Congratulations to all of you. I salute you and am proud to help recognize your extraordinary achievements.”

He then specifically recognized the achievements of first-generation graduates.

“I hope you and your loved ones take special pride in what you have achieved,” he said.

Watch the virtual ceremony

Thousands attended this year’s ceremony virtually, which paid tribute to 6,294 students who earned undergraduate and graduate degrees. Watch the event, which was broadcast to viewers around the world. For the University and for the graduates, it was a historic moment in many important ways. President Morton Schapiro called it a “commencement unlike the 161 that came before it.”

Invocation: ‘Hold firm between prayer and protest’

In her invocation, Associate Chaplain and Director of Interfaith Engagement Tahera Ahmad told graduates they may face grave hardship, but urged them to rise above the challenge of the time and overcome adversity to inspire change and good in the world.

“May you always know how to hold firm between prayer and protest, between peace and justice, between radical love and righteous anger, between an empathetic heart and a strategic mind, between giving back to the streets and learning in ivory towers, between resilient listening and breaking the silence, between speaking the inconvenient truth and preaching to the choir, between taking on the weight of the entire world and taking care of your own very precious soul,” she said. “Because you are sacred, and you matter. Beloved Wildcats, may you always be enveloped in love, protected from harm’s way, and may your every day inspire success.”

Honors for distinguished leaders

Lightfoot was among four people who received honorary degrees Friday, including Norman Lear, JoAnne Stubbe and George M. Whitesides, recognizing them as distinguished leaders in the arts, sciences and public service. Each was presented by a member of the Northwestern community, and President Schapiro bestowed each honor.

For the tenth year in a row, the president paid tribute to five high school teachers who inspired graduating seniors and had a lasting impact on their lives. Each was honored with a Distinguished Secondary Teacher Award, which recognizes teachers from across the country who were nominated by members of the senior class.

To fellow grads: ‘We are important’

Speaking on behalf of the class of 2020, graduating senior Trisha Kaundinya urged her classmates to think of the concept of “place” in their lives. She said place is a set of people and experiences that transform any physical environment.

“Today, we have to realize that it isn’t grass under our feet on Ryan Field that would have made this moment special. It isn’t the royal robes, tassels hanging from our caps or even the diplomas we tireless toiled for,” Kaundinya said. “Our memories of who we have become at Northwestern, our concepts of place, are important because we are important.” 

Related video: Watch NAA President Samir Mayekar welcome new members of the alumni family

Members of the 2020 graduating class will, in fact, have a chance to experience the ceremonies at Ryan Field. A second, in-person ceremony to recognize the 2020 class has been scheduled for June 2021, a stand-along graduation event distinct from the celebrations of the Class of 2021.

Although the date has not yet been confirmed for next year’s celebration due to evolving public-health guidance, Northwestern anticipates it will be held Saturday, June 12, 2021.


Scenes from a celebration on campus

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Published: June 19, 2020. Updated: July 07, 2020.

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