On Sunday, the University community bore witness to a fully virtual and remote commencement — the first such adaption of the ceremony in its 273-year history — as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic.
The video event, which was broadcast online, included remarks from Nicholas Johnson ’20, the University’s first black valedictorian, as well as University President Christopher L. Eisgruber ’83 and journalist and Chief Executive Officer of Rappler Maria Ressa ’86.
Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie *07 presented the candidates for undergraduate and graduate degrees, respectively.
At just over 47 minutes in length, the virtual ceremony was much shorter than previous in-person iterations.
The event began with an addendum to Eisgruber’s pre-recorded remarks, which addressed the recent murder of George Floyd and racial injustice in the United States. In his opening speech, delivered from Nassau Hall’s front steps, Eisgruber extended sympathies to those experiencing loss as a result of COVID-19, congratulated the families of graduating students on their contributions, and expressed his anticipation of an in-person event in May 2021.
“We have witnessed yet again how this nation’s long legacy of racism continues to damage and destroy the lives of black people,” read Eisgruber’s words, as they scrolled silently across the screen.
Later, Eisgruber addressed the unique nature of this community gathering.
“I wish we could all be together right now on the front lawn of Nassau Hall,” he noted. “For now, however, I am delighted to have this opportunity to celebrate vigorously, enthusiastically, and virtually the recipients of advanced degrees from our graduate school and the graduating seniors of our great class of 2020.”
“Each and every one of you has lost something precious and irreplaceable, in far too many ways,” he continued. “You have seen how fragile our world is.”
Eisgruber expressed optimism, however, about the future of the class.
“What will you do with this hardship?” he asked. “The losses are real and painful. What they took from you was beyond your control — what you take from them, however, that is at least partly up to you. It is thus worth asking, how will you remember these difficult times.”
Johnson and Ressa, speaking from their homes in Canada and the Philippines, respectively, also examined the disruption and loss wrought by the novel coronavirus.
“You are standing at the rubble of the world my generation created,” Ressa said. “The upside? Your class will be among the first to have a freer hand to imagine and create the world as it should be — more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable.”
“This new disease is not going to disappear quickly, and it will likely give rise to a new normal,” Johnson noted. “Let us rise to the occasion, to make transformative strides in advancing solutions to the world’s most pressing problems,” he said.
Johnson continued, “Let us fight passionately to ensure that this stressful period of sacrifice will be remembered as a moment in history when diversity of thought, creativity, compassion, and bravery, conquered fear of a common threat to humankind. With perseverance we will overcome. More than ever, let us build a better normal.”
Between the speeches and ceremonies, the stream cut to shots of the University campus in springtime, predominantly featuring up-campus buildings, including Nassau Hall itself.
Following a brief oration from salutatorian Grace Sommers ’20, delivered in the traditional Latin, Eisgruber called upon Dolan to present the candidates for undergraduate degrees.
Standing at a socially-distant podium to the president’s left, Dolan’s remarks touched on the unfulfilled ideas she had envisioned for the day.
“As I look out onto the empty lawn in front of Nassau Hall on this beautiful May day, I imagine each of you gathered shoulder to shoulder, wearing your caps and your gowns, shining with joy,” she said.
“And I imagine your families and friends, lining the fences surrounding your chairs, beaming with pride. I also imagine my faculty, colleagues, and members of the University community up on the dais behind me, delighting in your accomplishments.”
Leslie, placed on Eisgruber’s right, presented the president with the candidates for graduate degrees.
“Our graduate degree recipients have distinguished themselves through advanced studies, through original research contributions and through dedication to public service,” she noted. “Their achievements are nothing short of outstanding.”
Melanie Lawson ’76, the University orator and an alumni trustee, presented honorary degrees to chemical engineer Dr. Frances Arnold ’79, philanthropist and humanitarian Ray Chambers, news anchor Robin Roberts, chemical engineer William R. Schowalter, and former U.S. Ambassador and Executive Director to the Board of Directors of the Asian Development Bank Linda Tsao Yang.
The Rev. Dr. Theresa Thames, Associate Dean of Religious Life and of the Chapel, delivered a benediction, which mirrored an invocation given by Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel Rev. Alison Boden.
“Class of 2020, please keep imagining and shaping this world,” Thames said, “just like you have helped shape Princeton University in ways we never imagined.”
Following Thames, the Class of 2020 singers performed a rendition of “Old Nassau.”
Director of the Lewis Center for the Arts and recent U.S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith then read one of her poems. Standing in the center of the East Pyne courtyard, Smith read “Political Poem,” a work from her 2018 collection “Wade in the Water,” while the camera switched between her and views of an empty campus in bloom.
Smith’s reading ushered in a number of short, home-recorded messages from University alumni, including American Ninja Warrior co-host Matt Iseman ’93, U.S. Representative and University Trustee Terri Sewell ’86, two-time Olympic gold-medalist Caroline Lind ’06, and Nobel Laureate Kip Thorne *65.
With that, the stream ended — cutting to a slide with the University’s logo above the phrase “Congratulations Graduates!”
Earlier in the event, Eisgruber offered advice on how to celebrate the ceremony’s conclusion and, accordingly, graduation from the University.
“With those qualities, and with the education you complete today, you have the opportunity to chart a new course,” he said. “I hope you seize that opportunity. For today, though, I hope simply that you celebrate as exuberantly as circumstances allow.”