“I don’t mean to sound like a baby,” said Taylor Mills ’20.
But Mills, along with the rest of Princeton’s Class of 2020, does have a few complaints.
Their class’ graduation was initially planned as a normal, three-day, in-person celebration. But faced with dire circumstances after sending students home last year, the University opted for a live-streamed virtual celebration. Initially, the more traditional in-person ceremony was postponed, with the hope that the global health situation would be favorable enough to host meaningful ceremonies for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 together in May 2021.
But in February this year, the University reversed course. The event was cancelled in its entirety — to the ire of a class already stripped of Princeton’s typical end-of-undergraduate fanfare. And, unlike peer institutions like Yale and MIT, Princeton did not invite the Class of 2020 to an in-person ceremony in 2022.
“I understand the restraints of COVID,” Mills said. “I did not expect them to have it this year, or when it was unsafe at all … I just kind of expected them to try to do something on campus, even if it was a small celebration in the fall or in 2022.”
Later that month, the University announced plans for an in-person ceremony for the Class of 2021. Though Baccalaureate and Class Day were still held virtually, every graduating student — with two guests each — could attend an in-person Commencement ceremony at Princeton Stadium.
“Most members of the Class of 2021 are currently residing on campus or nearby and are already participating in the University’s asymptomatic testing protocol, which significantly reduces the logistical challenges to holding Commencement for that class this spring,” University Deputy Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss told The Daily Princetonian before the ceremony.
The Class of 2020 was left with memories of a virtual ceremony many considered underwhelming to cap off their time at the University, standing in stark contrast to the Class of 2021’s in-person event.
“We got our transcripts and were suddenly forced to transition to another part of our lives without any sort of significant closure,” said Mahishan Gnanaseharan ’20.
Like many other students at the time, Gnanaseharan completed his undergraduate career from his childhood bedroom, later beginning his full time job from the same location. Unlike the transition from his high school graduation to college, he found the line between these two phases of life to be much blurrier than expected.
“High school, I remember, it really felt like a culmination — it really felt like it was marking the end of a significant moment. And virtual commencement really didn't feel that way,” he said.
This sentiment was echoed by other members of the class, including Lucas Makinen ’20. Makinen worked on a continuation of his Physics senior thesis in Paris following graduation. It was only after he published his paper during the Paris lockdowns in late October that he finally registered that he was outside of the Orange Bubble’s grasp.
“A lot of these very big events came together to stamp on my forehead ‘Hey dude, you graduated,’” said Makinen.
Some members of the class skipped the live-streamed event. Citing the year’s unprecedented hardships — from economic hardship and millions of deaths globally — the celebratory element of it felt out of place at the time to Amina Sahibousidq ’20.
“It didn't feel like the appropriate time to celebrate … I will feel like it's worth celebrating when I can be back on campus and be with people after we're out of the woods,” she said.
Sharon Musa ’20 agreed that celebrating their graduation felt lackluster. In fact, Musa said she would have been hesitant to attend an in-person ceremony this year had the University held one.
Normally, graduation — three days of in-person ceremonies — is wrapped in the context of finishing college with friends and sporting Beer Jackets at Reunions for the first time. These elements would have been missing from this year’s proposed festivities, making the Class of 2020’s hypothetical in-person celebration an insulated event. Musa was not enthusiastic about the idea.
“Just the graduation ceremony by itself, it wasn't as appealing to me,” she said with a laugh.
Despite living and working in Washington D.C. — a relatively short commute to central New Jersey — Musa described her decision-making about attending a theoretical postponed commencement as “eh, maybe if it’s convenient — but I’m not trying to schedule my life around it.”
In addition to mourning their missed festive traditions, several members of the Class also invoked their parents, lamenting the missed opportunity to show them around campus one last time. Some are even forced to accept that their parents will probably never see where they spent four formative years.
“My parents had never seen Princeton’s campus,” said Sahibousidq, whose mother was particularly excited to go. “Obviously, there will be Reunions in the future … but what’s the significance of having [parents] come? They have less reason now and less likelihood to attend in the future.”
Makinen felt similarly disappointed: “Really deep down, all I really wanted was for my parents to meet my best friends somewhat candidly. I really wanted them to see the folks that I’ve come to cherish and love in their element.”
This disappointment — while common for graduates around the country last year — was especially poignant at Princeton, given the University’s heavy emphasis on tradition.
Their senior year cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Class of 2020 missed University traditions class like enjoying PTL (post-thesis-life) with friends, being formally welcomed into the alumni community via the Reunions’ P-Rade, and, of course, having the typical in-person commencement ceremony to close off their time at Princeton.
These feelings of disappointment have had ripple effects.
“A lot of our class is not engaged with the University,” said Juston Forte ’20, the alumni class president, based on conversations with friends. “I think a lot of them feel very disengaged, and have said they're not going to [donate to Princeton] until something happens.”
Forte explained that he thinks having some sort of event would do a lot to quell these feelings. But at Princeton — where the alumni donation record is one of the top in the country — the stakes are high when it comes to class engagement.
Typically, Princeton’s participation rate for annual giving one year after graduation hovers between 60 percent and 80 percent. Last year, however — amid a pandemic that brought about widespread financial and health-related struggles — the participation percentage for the Class of 2019 was only 34.6 percent, according to Alumni Association records.
“It is important to contextualize a snapshot of giving within a larger perspective,” said Hotchkiss. “Last year, in recognition of the difficulties of the pandemic, we suspended solicitations for Annual Giving for several months, and the Class of 2020 did not have the opportunity to participate in a class senior pledge campaign.”
The statistics for the Class of 2020’s giving record will not be finalized until after July 1, but few should be surprised if their numbers end up similarly low, given the absence of the opportunity to stir up alumni engagement through Reunions and an in-person commencement in addition to broader pandemic-related economic hardship.
For their part, the University is working to find solutions for the Class of 2021.
“A campus-wide working group led by University Advancement is developing a multi-year plan that will be informed by and amplify the interests of the class — including tailored programming and social media campaigns,” according to Hotchkiss.
And members of the Class of 2020 have their own hopes.
“Especially since there was really kind of a lack of connection and lack of feeling of graduation last year … it would be nice if they intended to do something to mark graduation in the future,” said Mikaylah Ladue ’20.
While she understands “why they made the decision they did,” she said, “I just really hope that's not them closing all doors, and I think they should get student input.”
“The moment has passed,” said Gnanaseharan. “It's hard to recapture that same feeling of being in the moment and graduating.”
“But,” he added, “I think it'd be nice to have, maybe at Reunions or something in the future, a brief, but meaningful ceremony, just to be like ‘hey, you graduated.’”
Most members of the class who were interviewed expressed similar desires: an event to acknowledge the Class of 2020’s achievements; something to bring everybody together that is more than the typical Reunions celebration; something, really, at all.
“Nothing virtual,” said Mills.