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W&M’s Class of 2020 comes home to reunite for in-person Commencement

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    Together, again:  The Class of 2020 gathered for a full, in-person Commencement experience over William &. Mary's Homecoming & Reunion Weekend from Oct. 7-10.  Photo by Stephen Salpukas
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William & Mary’s Class of 2020 completed their degrees and launched professional lives amid the COVID-19 pandemic, and, on Sunday, they returned to campus to be honored in a long-awaited in-person Commencement ceremony at Kaplan Arena.

“In March 2020, we knew that we would celebrate together,” William & Mary President Katherine A. Rowe said in her remarks to the graduates. “We didn’t know how, but we committed that we would – because we knew how much this matters.”

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The Class of 2020 gathered for a full, in-person Commencement experience over the university’s Homecoming & Reunion Weekend from Oct. 7-10. The class was celebrated with two commencement ceremonies on Sunday, featuring Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Dr. Anthony Fauci as a virtual speaker. Fauci received an honorary degree from William & Mary and delivered virtual remarks during both ceremonies. 

Throughout the weekend, the Class of 2020 also participated in the time-honored traditions of candlelight ceremony, senior dance, walks across campus and the ringing of the Wren bell.

Students from the Class of 2020 pass through the Wren building on their walk across campus. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas) “I want to tell you how proud we are of your courage, your resilience and your discipline,” William & Mary's Chancellor Robert M. Gates '65, L.H.D. '98 told the graduates. “During the last half of your senior year, you faced the greatest disruption in the daily lives of William & Mary students since the Civil War. You came together; you protected each other. You set an example for every college campus in the nation … so, as you celebrate today, know you have already made a difference – and you will continue to do so for our nation, and for our world.”

Emerging stronger

In May 2020, the university made the decision to pivot to a virtual ceremony and conferral of degrees for the Class of 2020, after Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced a “stay-at-home” order for the state. The order was in response to national public health projections that COVID-19 cases in the commonwealth were headed towards their first peak, which Virginia hit in late May 2020.

Graduates from the Class of 2020 celebrated at an in-person ceremony in Kaplan Arena on Sunday. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Mellody Hobson, president and CEO of Ariel Investments, gave a virtual Commencement address to the class in May of 2020. She told the graduates to remain focused on the future and not "anchor yourselves on today."

“I promise this weight will lift," she said. "I say this out of both optimism and experience. We will emerge from this crisis stronger and more energized.”

Evan Wong ’20 braved hours of traffic on I-95 in the trek from his native New Jersey to Williamsburg to celebrate Commencement in-person with his classmates.

W&M President Katherine A. Rowe congratulated the graduates from the podium. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)“I was super excited to come down and experience a full, professional ceremony,” said Wong, an applied mathematics major who minored in data science. “I mean, I got stuck in traffic for nine hours and, honestly, I feel like it was worth the drive to be here.”

Wong is now employed by Booz Allen Hamilton, which is headquartered in Virginia, but, like many of his classmates, Wong has been working remotely since he began his professional career last summer.

“I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person,” Wong said. “For now, I’m just waiting until they call me back.”

Bestowing honors

Fauci received an honorary degree from William & Mary and delivered virtual remarks to William & Mary’s Class of 2020 as part of the Commencement ceremony.

Dr. Anthony Fauci offered virtual remarks during the ceremony. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden, was appointed director of NIAID in 1984 and has advised seven presidents on domestic and global health issues. He received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. 

“It's an extraordinary honor to be bestowed an honorary doctorate from an educational institution with such high regard as William & Mary,” Fauci said in his remarks. “I am both humbled and highly appreciative. I feel especially thrilled to receive this honor together with this class, whose experiences over the past two years have been truly unique.

“‘Grit’ and ‘strength’ are words that President Rowe has frequently used to describe William & Mary students. I agree. … Despite the inconvenience, the disruption of plans, the threat to your own personal health, and that of your family and friends, in the long run, this experience will strengthen and provide you with the resilience that will fair you well in your future careers and personal lives. And so, I'm especially proud to be part of this class.”

Thomas Lovejoy, a world-renowned expert in biodiversity and founder of “Nature” on PBS, and Donald Patten, former rector at W&M and a renowned lawyer in asbestos liability litigation, were also bestowed honorary degrees. Patten received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws, and Lovejoy received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science. The university also presented its annual Commencement awards to graduates, staff and faculty members.

“I hope that as each of you go forward and pursue your lives, that part of it will always be anchored in securing a better environment for future generations,” Lovejoy said in his remarks.

A community of care 

Kathryn "Kate" Donati '20 said she 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 traveled from New York City, where she is now a high school English teacher, to speak at both of Sunday’s ceremonies.

Student speaker Kathryn "Kate" Donati '20 traveled from New York City, where she teaches high school English, to address her classmates during Sunday's ceremonies. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)“Our community came together in a time of unprecedented need,” Donati said in her remarks. “We did that, graduates. We embraced each other across virtual lines and a separation that none of us ever anticipated, and I am so proud of us for continuing to stand in the legacy of William & Mary in that way.

“That's the real tradition of William & Mary, the care – and caring can look like tough love. Sometimes it looks like taking a hard look at this place and forging new paths, striving to make changes that we know will set the next class – and the endless ones after that – up for the greatest success, because we have all seen just how beautiful this community can be.”