University, School & Affinity Groups Celebrate Class of 2020 Virtually

June 22 @ 9:16 pm
By Communications Office

The list of those who made graduation 2020 special is long and includes (top row, left to right) Melissa Begg, CSSW Dean | Ruha Benjamin, Princeton University professor & keynote speaker | Laura Kimberly, PhD graduate & speaker | Shari Simon, MSW graduate & speaker | (bottom row, left to right) Curtis Zunigha, Lenape Center | Zuleka Henderson, POC graduation keynote speaker | Andrea Glik, Lavender graduation keynote speaker.

Amid the coronavirus, graduating MSW and PhD students had a nontraditional graduation, and many of them found ways to make the best of the experience.

Demonstrating persistence, adaptability, and grit in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and its fallout, the Class of 2020 made it to the finish line—graduating on Wednesday, May 20, in an online ceremony necessitated by the shutdown of Columbia’s physical campus. Two affinity graduations, a Lavender ceremony and a People of Color ceremony, had taken place beforehand in the Zoom meeting format.

At the time when the coronavirus pandemic struck New York City, many of the School’s graduating students had already started making plans to attend University Commencement, followed by the School of Social Work’s own graduation ceremony, in New York City on May 20. They envisioned celebrating this milestone alongside their fellow students, with family members and friends cheering them on.

The day they had instead was one of mingled joy and sadness, hope and frustration. Students who had reveled in one another’s company applauded their peers afar as they gathered in a Zoom room to watch the CSSW ceremony, appearing alongside family members, friends, and even beloved pets.

University Commencement

Columbia University’s Commencement ceremony went live at 11 a.m., with graduates from all over the University tuning in. Although the remarks were pre-recorded, the Columbia tradition was maintained, with the President of the University offering an address, after which each of the deans asks the president to confer the degrees of their graduates.

Noting that the virtual commencement was the first in the University’s history, President Lee C. Bollinger said (12:16–17:43 in the video below):

Although this is a joyous day for you and your families and for all of us at Columbia…there is an inescapable sadness in the distance that separates us from the people, places, rituals, and traditions that bring meaning to our lives.

Melissa Begg concluded her first academic year as dean of the School of Social Work by asking President Bollinger to grant Master’s and doctoral degrees to “the newest graduates of the oldest school of social work in the country,” whom she described as champions of social justice, going on to paraphrase a passage from Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” (30:16–31:23):

Though you always do for others
Though your songs may be unsung
I know you’ll build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung.

School of Social Work Commencement

The School of Social Work’s virtual commencement ceremony opened at 2:30 p.m. with a video (see below) that began with a song and prayer from Curtis Zunigha of the Lenape Center of New York (0:19–3:42), followed by remarks from

  • Dean Begg (3:46–12:11; read it here): “You are our hope because of your commitment, ingenuity, and empathy.”
  • Doctoral student representative Laura Kimberly (12:17–17:30): “Despite the worry and the uncertainty and the fear…I believe this moment will actually open unexpected doors for us as social work professionals.”
  • Master’s student representative Shari Simon (17:32–22:28): “We are forever bonded as the class that charted unprecedented times together.”

The ceremony culminated in a keynote address by Ruha Benjamin, an associate professor of African American Studies at Princeton University and leading thinker on race and technology (24:11–42:38; read it here). Asking what it means to be a social worker in today’s world, Ruha said:

I think it entails a keen understanding that many of the policies and structures that govern our lives are working against the social, pushing a corrosive individualism cloaked in the language of “freedom.” This was true before the pandemic and has only intensified since.

Approximately 150 graduating students and other community members gathered in a Zoom room to watch the ceremony together. Many graduates, like Alexis Perry (below), wore caps and gowns; some were joined by family members or pets.

Courtesy of Alexis Perry

In addition to the official ceremony, the site also featured a video compiling congratulatory messages from a number of graduating students—

—along with two videos offering encouraging words from faculty, mentors, and administrators:

Each graduate also made a slide with their name, photo, and a short message, for a slideshow that was generated later:

And, in spite of their disappointment at the way the semester ended, graduates were still thankful for everyone who got them there and helped make the day possible:

CSSW Affinity Graduations

Several student caucuses went on Zoom to hold the affinity graduation events they had been planning for, before the Columbia campus closed.

At the Queer Caucus’s Lavender Graduation, held on the evening of Thursday, May 14, keynote speaker Andrea Glik, LMSW, a psychotherapist and somatic healer, told graduates:

Know that you are deeply needed. You fought to get here.

At the second annual People of Color (POC) graduation—a combined effort of the Black Caucus, the LatinX Caucus, and the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus—held on Tuesday, May 19, keynote speaker Zuleka Henderson stressed “how proud all of our ancestors are today” (read her address here):

“Our celebration and accomplishments happen on the roads that they paved for our survival. May we NEVER forget.”

A number of participants said they had found their affinity ceremonies moving—despite, or perhaps because of, the unusual circumstances. Natalia Renae Delery, a POC graduation planner and representative of the Black Caucus, said, “It was an event for us, by us, and with our accomplishments in mind. People were able to give shout-outs at the end and family and friends tuning in from all over the world got on mic and camera to send their well wishes and congratulations.”

The online venue also allowed the POC graduation planners to expand registration from 240 seats to 300 screens. Gipsy Castellanos, a co-leader of the Latinx Caucus, said, “I was surprised that there were so many people who wanted to celebrate with us”—including Dean Melissa Begg, and many other members of the administration, faculty, and staff.

Shinjini Bakshi, who spoke at the POC graduation on behalf of the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus and also graduated in the Lavender ceremony, said despite the “internal disappointment” and “bittersweet nature” of not gathering in person, “I loved seeing each individual name of our closest friends, family, and loved ones tuning in from around the world.”

Well-wishers were not limited to humans, Bakshi added, saying “how unforgettable it was to have my dog next to me on the screen and notice the other furry friends who got to join us this year.”

* * *

With the many virtual, remote, and online features necessitated by these challenging times, one very concrete brick-and-mortar tradition still held fast: on Wednesday evening, May 20, the top of the Empire State Building was lit in blue and white to honor Columbia’s graduates.

Congratulations to the Class of 2020! We wish you all the best as you go into the world to make waves, move mountains, and change lives.