On Sunday, May 24, for the first time in its history, Wesleyan University held its Commencement virtually, awarding 771 Bachelor of Arts, 3 Bachelor of Liberal Studies, 4 Bachelor of Arts on completion, 36 Master of Arts, 19 Master of Liberal Studies, 1 Master of Philosophy, and 10 Doctor of Philosophy degrees.
Streamed on both the Wesleyan website (on the Commencement 2020 page) and on the Wesleyan University Facebook page, the ceremony—the University’s 188th—saw more than 3,000 family, friends, faculty, staff, and alumni gather together online for a common moment in celebration of the members of the Class of 2020. Graduates had just completed one of the more unusual and challenging semesters in recent memory as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, during which the University moved to a distance learning model to ensure student and community safety.
The virtual proceedings were led by President Michael Roth ’78. In his welcome address, President Roth said, “Class of 2020, we have already seen what you are capable of when you have the freedom and the tools, the mentors and the friendships, the insight and the affection to go beyond what others have defined as your limits.
“We need your participation in civic life, whether you choose to engage in your neighborhood, city, state, or at the national level. . . . A university is a place to have one’s ways of thinking tested—not just protected. If we are to repair our public life, we must develop habits of mind and spirit that allow us not just to celebrate our differences from mainstream culture but to learn how to positively impact it.”
Honorary Degree Recipients
This year’s honorary degree recipients—award-winning and best-selling author Jacqueline Woodson (Commencement speaker); actor and political activist Bradley Whitford ’81; and social justice advocate and pastor Rev. Dr. William Joseph Barber II—were chosen on the basis of their significant contributions to civic life in the United States. President Roth praised their ability to bring new voices into the public sphere and spur others to productive dialogue and action, in keeping with Wesleyan’s recently-launched Engage 2020 initiative (a comprehensive effort to support student learning via civic engagement and liberal arts education).
In his remarks, Rev. Barber II called upon the graduates to care about the world beyond themselves, to seek change, and to think about living lives of meaning. He noted that the COVID-19 pandemic has exploited “the fissures and the inequalities of the society that are caused by poverty and systemic structural racism,” laying bare the challenges in our country that far too many people in power have been willing to ignore.
“Instead of going back to normal, which was 140 million people living in poverty and low wealth and 700 people dying a day from poverty, I want to issue to you a call to care . . . and a challenge to seek change. We cannot go back to normal or just a new normal,” he said.
“So I want to issue you a challenge to be instruments of change. To use your degrees, your education, your influence, your intelligence, to be instruments of change,” said Barber. “We can be a society where everyone has health care and living wages as basic human rights if we change things. If we hear and accept the challenges to seek change, the hungry can be fed, the sick healed, the immigrants welcomed, the environment saved.”
Whitford similarly compelled the graduates to take action toward a better future during this time of “unprecedented uncertainty.”
“We need you to help us battle the overwhelming fear and uncertainty we’re all experiencing by nurturing the sparks of possibility in yourselves and in your communities. No disease has ever been cured, no people were ever liberated from oppression with fear and cynicism and doubt,” he said. “The only way progress has ever been made is when we have understood that we are not just victims of circumstance, but that we can also be architects of our own destiny. It’s the radical idea of the American experiment, the idea that our future is an act of our own creation, and that its possibilities are limited only by our imagination and how hard we are willing to fight.”
“If we learn anything from this pandemic, it must be that we are all connected on this delicate little planet. And I hope that the pernicious myth of separateness that lies at the root of so much oppression and injustice in this world must finally be obliterated.”
Woodson, acknowledging that older generations have left the graduates a “messy” planet, expressed her faith in young people.
“I see your magic. I see your brilliance. And I see the way you are doing the hard work already and changing the world already,” she said. “And I just love young people so much. I love what y’all are doing, I love who you’re becoming, and I love what this world is going to be because of you. So thank you, thank you, graduates.”
Video recordings of all speakers’ remarks are available on the University’s Commencement webpage.
Senior Class Speaker
President Roth and the honorary degree recipients were joined by Caroline Bhupathi ’20, a computer science major from Dallas, Texas, who provided the senior class address and spoke about how her time at Wesleyan allowed her to not only be heard for the first time, but to hear others.
“The people at Wesleyan have taught me that we do not have to necessarily have the same experiences to relate to one another. Wesleyan has meant that I was able to express, for myself, my own everchanging narrative,” she said. “So, whether it be speaking in front of the first-years for 10 minutes, being featured as a Wesceleb in the Argus, discussing important campus matters in WSA, leading a protest across campus for an important cause, being inducted into a not-so-secret, secret society, having your band play at MASH, growing food at Long Lane Farm, winning NESCACs with your team, directing a Second Stage play, creating a club to provide a space that was not already there, or writing an honors thesis, Wesleyan has given us the opportunity to discover ourselves and celebrate us, not only as individuals, but as a collective.”
(Read/watch Caroline’s full remarks)
The ceremony concluded with a group of Wesleyan students leading a virtual rendition of the University’s alma mater, “Come Raise the Song”, written by F.L. Knowles and with music by William B. Davis, both Class of 1894.
Wesleyan Teaching and Alumni Awards
Wesleyan awarded the Baldwin Medal—the highest award presented by the alumni body for extraordinary service to the University—to interim provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs Rob Rosenthal.
“Rob is a person of community,” President Roth said during the presentation of the Baldwin Medal. “As provost he has made Wesleyan a more responsible and more engaged university. He came out of retirement this year to serve as our chief academic officer, and he has been fearless and compassionate as we have had to deal with a major public health crisis. His service to the institution has been exemplary, as has his devotion to the public good. We are proud to honor him today.”
Wesleyan also awarded three Binswanger Prizes for Excellence in Teaching to Associate Professor of Biology Gloster Aaron, Associate Professor and Chair of Sociology Robyn Autry, and Artist-in-Residence Keiji Shinohara.
Reading of Names and an In-Person Commencement to Come
The University has posted a full list of all graduates as well as a recorded reading of all graduates’ names. Family and friends are encouraged to use social media to congratulate all 2020 graduates and offer them words of wisdom using the hashtags #WesGrad, #Wes2020, and/or #TogetherWes, and these well-wishes are aggregated on the virtual WesWall. The University has also made a series of digital downloads available to help friends and family share their excitement for graduates through story frames and backgrounds, custom graphics, and printable lawn signs and Zoom backgrounds of the Wesleyan campus. Additionally, Wesleyan apparel and merchandise are available for purchase through the Wesleyan RJ Julia Bookstore online.
Wesleyan is planning an in-person Commencement ceremony for 2020 graduates to be held in May 2021, with further details provided as they are finalized over the coming months.