Kathryn “Kate” Donati ’20 reached the conclusion that community exists even when we cannot see it shortly after William & Mary switched to remote learning amid COVID-19 in the spring of 2020.
She will get a chance to see, visit with and be heard by members of that community again when she serves as the student speaker for William & Mary’s in-person Commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 on Oct. 10, 2021.
The class had a virtual degree conferral ceremony in May 2020. Earlier this year, the university announced that the class would have an in-person ceremony and its associated traditions — including the candlelight ceremony and ringing of the Wren Bell — over W&M’s 2021 Homecoming & Reunion Weekend, Oct. 7-10.
“I can't imagine any student Commencement speaker has ever had a particularly easy assignment, but this one definitely presented its own challenge,” said Donati, who will travel from New York City where she is now a high school English teacher to speak at both ceremonies.
Donati moved around while she was growing up, but spent the most time in Manila, Philippines. At W&M, she majored in English literature and worked as both a senior interviewer and tour guide in the Office of Undergraduate Admission, also serving as an orientation aide and group fitness instructor for yoga with Campus Recreation. She is currently applying to master’s programs in literature.
“It's the community here that stands out by far as the most important part of my years at William & Mary,” Donati said. “The value of giving back to a community that embraces you is something I will carry with me always.”
Almost the entirety of her time at W&M revolved around giving back, according to Donati. It started when she felt a strong urge during her own orientation to help the newest members of the community find their path.
“I always enjoyed feeling like I was finding new ways to give back to a community that helped to form me into the person I'm proud to be,” Donati said.
The spring of 2020 and its abrupt ending to her senior year presented an unparalleled challenge. Donati described her experience that year as “unfinished,” and said she’s still finding ways to handle that feeling.
Going through it at the time, Donati said she clung to the warmth of the W&M community. She described how just weeks after students didn’t return to campus, she hosted the first virtual yoga class Campus Recreation held and had more than 160 attendees.
“I was in tears before I even began teaching, watching the names and faces of my community pop up on this one call,” Donati said. “The intention I set for that class was more of a reminder that community exists even when we cannot see it. That has really been the echo of my William & Mary experience since then.”
She acknowledged the difficulty of crafting a message for this particular graduating class, adding that her sentimental bent these days will, of course, have her touching on the importance of human connection.
“I tried to strike the right balance between honoring the experience we had before the pandemic while acknowledging the enormous elephant in the room,” Donati said. “I wanted to make everyone feel included and seen in my speech, too, which I hope I've done.
“I hope that every member of our community finds a piece of themselves in my small words and feels embraced and at home. That's the point of it all; for me anyway.”