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Prepared for anything: W&M’s Class of 2021 celebrates unique Commencement weekend after a year like no other

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    Commencement 2021:  Graduates pose for a photograph during the traditional walk across campus on Saturday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • People in caps and gowns walk toward a large brick building
    Commencement 2021:  Graduates get ready to begin the traditional walk across campus on Sunday morning.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • People in academic regalia walk over a curved wooden bridge
    Commencement 2021:  Graduates cross the Crim Dell on their way to Zable Stadium on Saturday afternoon.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • A group of people in caps and gowns takes a selfie
    Commencement 2021:  A group of friends stops to take a selfie during the walk across campus on Sunday.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • People in caps and gowns sit in chairs on a football field
    Commencement 2021:  Graduate students attend one of the university's six Commencement ceremonies in Zable Stadium.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • A large screen shows a person at a podium and below is that person on a stage
    Commencement 2021:  W&M President Katherine A. Rowe addresses one group of graduates during Saturday afternoon's ceremony.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
  • People sit in stadium stands
    Commencement 2021:  With COVID-19 restrictions lifting in recent weeks, the Class of 2021 was able to invite guests to attend the ceremonies.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
  • People wearing caps and gowns sit in chairs
    Commencement 2021:  Throughout the weekend, approximately 1,320 undergraduate degrees and 684 graduate degrees were conferred.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
  • A person wearing a mask is shown on a large screen
    Commencement 2021:  Faith Ringgold, renowned artist, writer, teacher and lecturer, presents pre-recorded remarks to the graduates. She was one of two honorary degree recipients this year. The other was Anthony Kennedy, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
  • A person signs the back of frisbees with Go 2021
    Commencement 2021:  W&M President Katherine A. Rowe signs Frisbee discs that she threw out to graduates at the end of each ceremony.  Photo by Skip Rowland '83
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With multiple ceremonies, graduates sitting six feet apart and other health protocols in place due to COVID-19, William & Mary’s 2021 Commencement weekend was like none other in many ways.

But at its heart, the weekend remained a celebration of challenges met, friendships created, goals accomplished and aspirations formed.

“For everyone in our community, the successes that brought our graduates to this moment have been hard-won,” said W&M President Katherine A. Rowe, during Sunday morning’s ceremony. “You earned them — through grit and perseverance, despite loss and grief, with the support of the friends you made along the way.”

{{youtube:large:left|xjM-HNXvBzw, W&M President Katherine A. Rowe's Commencement remarks}}

In order to comply with state and federal guidance, while also allowing guests to attend, the university held six ceremonies at Zable Stadium over the course of three days instead of one primary Commencement ceremony.

Graduate students attended two ceremonies May 21 and 22, and four undergraduate ceremonies took place May 22 and 23. All of them were livestream and may still be viewed online. Throughout the weekend, approximately 1,320 undergraduate degrees and 684 graduate degrees were conferred, including 124 to active-duty, reserve or military veterans.

The outgoing Student Assembly executive branch, inclduing (left to right) Vice President Kyle Vasquez '21, President Anthony "AJ" Joseph '21 and Chief of Staff Loni Wright '21, prepares to lead students across campus. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Two honorary degrees were also awarded by the university this year, and the recipients were recognized at all six ceremonies.

Portions of the weekend events were held virtually, such as departmental ceremonies and cultural or identity celebrations, including the university’s first Asian, Pacific Islander & Middle Eastern/Southwest Asian Celebration. Other traditions remained in-person, including the ringing of the Wren Bell (although reservations were required) and the university’s Candlelight Ceremony.

The COVID-19 pandemic required the university community to re-think and re-design every tradition and activity, Rowe said.

“This year has challenged us. It has stretched and changed us in ways we are still discovering,” Rowe said. “We have used the word ‘unprecedented’ so many times, and accurately. Yet the truth is, years like this will come again in your life and again to our nation. When they do, you will need to call on the capacities you have grown at William & Mary.”

{{youtube:large:left|JE4bw7DmB00, Robert M. Gates addresses the Class of 2021}}

Chancellor Robert M. Gates ’65, L.H.D. ’98, also encouraged the graduates to use what they learned at W&M to address the challenges ahead.

“We are in a period of our country’s history marked by too much shouting and too little listening, too much ego and self-certainty and too little humility and open-mindedness,” said Gates. “To overcome the challenges our nation and world face requires a willingness to listen and to learn.

“As graduates of this university, you have a responsibility to defend our democracy, to keep perfecting and reshaping it. Noting the extraordinary manner in which the Class of 2021 has coped with incredible obstacles already, I have no doubt you are up to this challenge.”

Honoring achievement, service

Several members of the W&M community and friends of the university were honored during the ceremonies.

Earlier this semester, the university bestowed honorary degrees on Anthony Kennedy, retired associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and Faith Ringgold, renowned artist, writer, teacher and lecturer. Each presented pre-recorded remarks during the ceremonies.

{{youtube:large:left|hLezIy9_umo, W&M's 2021 honorary degree recipients}}

Additionally, awards were presented to students, faculty and staff for achievements in academics, service and leadership, among other qualities.

In another modification to tradition, multiple student speakers were selected to deliver remarks at the six ceremonies: two graduate speakers and one speaker for all four undergraduate ceremonies.

Divya Dureja ’21, the undergraduate speaker, said that traditions were meant to be broken, like those that kept people of color out of W&M for many years.

“Carry forward that fire that burns in all of us to break tradition,” Dureja told fellow graduates. “Chase learning and champion change, Class of 2021. We have withstood a simply absurd year. But today you have prevailed.”

{{youtube:large:left|0qtTwDEOQv8, W&M's undergraduate student speaker}}

‘Make it through anything’

JonDavid Nichols ’20 was one of the many students, faculty and staff members who volunteered over the weekend to help make W&M’s six Commencement ceremonies possible.

Nichols graduated from William & Mary in December 2019 and began working at the university as assistant dean of admission right as the pandemic began. While Nichols has not experienced an in-person Commencement yet (a virtual ceremony was held last year), he enjoyed seeing the Class of 2021 have its moment and looks forward to celebrating in person with the Class of 2020 during Homecoming & Reunion Weekend in October.

A graduate poses for a photo at one of the ceremonies. (Photo by Skip Rowland '83)

“I am very excited for the upcoming Commencement/Homecoming,” said Nichols. “I think it's a great opportunity to bring the Class of 2020 back together for a weekend that they already wanted to come back to. And that I think it's even better that we'll have other recent graduating years there as well to kind of support us in our moment.”

Earlier this year, the university was uncertain whether it could hold an in-person Commencement this spring for the Class of 2021 due to COVID-19 and related restrictions. As the number of cases dropped within Virginia and mandates lifted, W&M was able to commit to an in-person Commencement – and later even one that allowed guests.

Having family at Commencement was especially significant for Vanessa Guzman ’21, who is the first person in her family to graduate college.

Graduates walk across the Crim Dell. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas) “It just feels really surreal,” she said. “I'm very surprised that and thankful for the fact that we could do this in-person, and it's just awesome to have my family physically here to support me.”

One thing she will take away from the past year is a sense of resilience.

“It was definitely that you just gotta take the hits as they come,” she said. “If I can make it through this, I can make it through anything.”