Class of 2020 Reunites for In-Person Commencement

Photos by Mike Picarello

Seven hundred and thirty-two days after they had been forced to view their graduation ceremonies on a computer screen, more than two-thirds of Vassar’s class of 2020 returned to campus Saturday, May 28 for an in-person Commencement with family and friends and tossed their caps in the air—together.

Forced by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic to leave the campus in March of their senior year, the graduates were scattered across the globe when Vassar Trustee and horror film producer Jason Blum ’91 delivered their Commencement address on May 24, 2020. 

As she welcomed the graduates back to the campus for their in-person ceremony, President Elizabeth Bradley said everyone in the Vassar community had learned some important lessons since then. “First, we learned that our fates were tied together,” President Bradley said. “The simple phrase we started with, ‘We precedes me,’ stuck and has gotten applied regularly to other domains on campus, I think in good ways. We have recognized that our behaviors affect not just oneself but also each other, and our ability to be together depended on agreeing to certain norms, to which we adhered for the most part.”

Bradley noted that when students returned in the fall of 2020 but were required to remain on campus, students and faculty had proven to be their usual creative selves as they coped with outdoor classes and learned to appreciate the beauty and solitude of the Ecological Preserve. “…(I)n the last two years when so much was taken away (or could be taken away), the appreciation for one another was palpable,” she said. And as many experienced anxiety triggered by isolation and separation, “we adjusted to balancing social and mental health with physical health, a balance we are still grappling with as COVID does not seem to be done with us yet.”

Bradley praised the graduates and others in the Vassar community for their resilience. “We have all lost a lot—job opportunities, travel, our health broadly defined, and the health and, in some cases, the lives of loved ones,” she said. “And you and the Vassar community lost the time together from March 2020 until your graduation. Those losses are not forgotten but have become part of us, a cornerstone in our individual and collective grief that is part of our healing.”

Bradley concluded her speech by reminding the graduates that they are part of a “fearless community that can tackle tough problems,” and she said the fact that so many had returned for the in-person Commencement ceremony “demonstrates how much we value our community.”

In her address to her fellow graduates, Class President Heather Phan Nguyen said the past two years had reinforced the adage that “the only constant is change.” She said a friend had recently observed that change is necessary for the forces of life to align, “and that thought will serve as a compass for my life.”

Nguyen said she would always be grateful to Vassar for the support she received as she and her fellow students faced the challenges caused by the pandemic. “I learned so much from all of you, especially my first-gen, low-income peers,” she said.

Kevin Arce, who was President of the Council of ALANA Seniors in 2020, confessed that he was “not a big fan of institutional traditions.” And he noted that there was something odd about attending a ceremony to receive a Vassar degree “when some of us have already gotten another one.” But Arce said he was glad he had returned for the postponed celebration and said he was ready and willing to support everyone in his class. “I offer my friendship and my love and support whenever you need it,” he said. “We should remember those we lost and uplift and cherish each other. For me, that’s all I need.”

Class of 2020 Correspondent Kevin Cañas expressed his thanks—in Spanish—to his family and said he was thrilled to have the opportunity to reconnect with his classmates on campus. “It’s been energizing and magnetic to see you all,” Cañas said. “I applaud your perseverance.”

Cañas said the struggles he and his classmates had faced during the pandemic had caused him to recall something Assistant Professor of Biology Colin Aitken tells his students as they are about to take a test: “It’s going to be OK.”

“Stay safe,” Cañas told his classmates, “and congratulations!”

The awarding of diplomas began with a presentation to the family of Ariana Salguero ’20, who died in May of 2021 after a battle with cancer. The crowd of more than 1,500 gave the family a standing ovation.

Two parents who attended the Commencement exercises said the event had at least partially erased the sadness they had experienced when the in-person ceremony had been cancelled two years ago. Matthew Lowery and his family traveled from their home in Bel Air, MD, to watch their son, Matthew Lowery II, march across the stage. “2020 was disappointing because Matt had put in so much effort to graduate,” Lowery said. “It’s great to be here to be able to honor his work.”

Chris Philips, father of 2020 grad Tatum Phillips, agreed. “Tatum wanted to celebrate with her friends, so 2020 was a huge disappointment,” he said, “but this ceremony today kind of makes up for lost time.”

Prior to Saturday’s ceremony, the 2020 grads spent time renewing old friendships at gatherings across the campus. Livia Bartels, now a ninth-grade teacher at a charter school in Springfield, MA, attended a reception for the class in the Villard Room with a classmate, Spencer McConnell, whom she had met shortly after their college careers began. “We both played trumpet in the College orchestra, and we’ve been friends ever since,” Bartels said. “I’m glad I came back for this. Commencement is a rite of passage, and the more you’re away from Vassar, the more you miss it.”

View more photos from the class of 2020’s in-person Commencement ceremony. 2020's weekend festivities also included affinity group activities, a reception hosted by AAVC, and more. View a gallery of images.

May 29, 2022