Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
To all the honored guests, faculty, staff, students, families and friends listening — good afternoon, and congratulations to the University of Maryland graduating class of 2020!
It’s a privilege to be here speaking to you all through Zoom today. The tech people have told me that there’s 20,000 people across the world tuned in, so there’s a bit of a strain on our internet here in College Park. If you can’t tell, I’m here in Xfinity Center, looking at the fully decorated walls and the thousands of empty seats, patiently waiting for eduroam to go out. Very Maryland.
I understand that some of you are wondering why in the world I’m speaking to you right now as your commencement speaker. I’m a student, you say! Where’s the cool commencement speaker, or someone you can write angry op-eds about? All the big public figures are actually getting tested for the coronavirus and making solidarity singing videos, so they weren’t able to make it. They actually asked me, as someone who’s about to have the most anticlimactic end to four years of mediocre work, to speak about what it’s like to graduate during a pandemic. So, here I am!
Most commencement speakers would start by saying something about celebration, thanks, gratitude, etc., etc. I will not do that. I will, instead, remind you all of the experiences that we, and only we, have been given. For good or for bad, it’s ours and ours alone.
Our graduating class is probably more poised to deal with tragedy and loss than those of other colleges. We’ve had a hard four years, guys. At the end of our first, 2nd Lt. Richard Collins III was murdered on campus. Over the summer between our second and third, Jordan McNair died. I doubt any other group of graduating seniors is as used to terrible events as ours. I also doubt that any other group is as capable of finding joy despite it all.
When you hear me say joy, you might have thought of R.J. Bentley’s. Before it closed down, thanks to COVID-19, it was the grimy spot to be at on Wednesday nights. Long lines, high cover charges, sticky floors, overly strong tequila lemonades on frat shoes and more. Oh, the memories. But look beyond Route 1 and to all the other ways we come together in solidarity and strength.
Remember ProtectUMD, the 25 student groups who came together to rally behind marginalized groups and pushed for more support for vulnerable students? How about the Maryland Food Co-op and how, despite its imminent closing, the campus community rallied around the worker-owners? What about the homophobic, misogynistic, racist Key of David protestors who were met on McKeldin Mall by hundreds of counterprotesting students, showing love and solidarity to their classmates?
I’m sure there are more examples, but these stood out when I was thinking about all the different ways that this university stands together, stronger than ever. I wanted to remind you that we, the class of 2020, have lived through a lot and have come out with something special: resilience and community.
Graduates, we might not have had our graduation pictures in the fountain. We might not have realized that we sat in the basement of Kirwan Hall or eaten at Moby Dick in Stamp for the last time. We might not have known that our boring 9 a.m. lecture was the last one we’d ever go to (did anyone actually attend those online classes?). And we might not have understood that when we said “see you later” to campus for spring break, we were really saying “goodbye.” But what we do have is each other, and we’re all stronger than ever before. We have the knowledge that we’re the only people on the planet who graduated from this university in the spring of 2020, in the midst of a global crisis, with each other — despite everything that came in our way.
So, take some time to reach out to those who, in a different world, you’d be sitting next to during the long, long commencement ceremony. Remind them that we’ve made it this far, that everything we went through changed all of us for the better and that they can get an Alumni Association membership for a hefty discount right now. Thank you, University of Maryland, and a hearty Zoom-gratulations to all the graduates!
Serena Saunders is a senior public policy major and a graduate student in public policy. She can be reached at email@example.com.