Two years after receiving degrees, members of the Class of 2020 will celebrate on campus

Ella Marx

This July, members of the Class of 2020 and their families will celebrate their graduation from the College back on campus — over two years after alums from the class received their degrees. The celebration weekend, planned for July 22-24, will not take the place of a formal commencement ceremony — which the class did not receive in June 2020 — since the College has already conferred the alums with their degrees.

Instead, at the 2020 Celebration Ceremony planned for July 23, alums from the Class of 2020 will have the chance to join a formal procession in academic regalia and cross a stage donning their caps and gowns, College Marshal and Professor of Chemistry Lee Park told the Record.

After the College sent students home from campus due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and canceled in-person commencement that year, it sent a survey to the class asking if they would prefer virtual graduation proceedings in June 2020 or a rescheduled future ceremony. Two-thirds of the class responded to the survey, with 90 percent of respondents indicating that they preferred the in-person option, so the College moved forward without virtual commemoration.

Now, the College is preparing to welcome the class back to campus this summer with a class photo and class dinner at Mt. Hope — in addition to the celebration ceremony — among other events throughout the weekend. 452 members of the Class of 2020 have registered for the weekend’s events, according to Director of Commencement and Academic Events Carrie Greene ’02.

In conjunction with the Office of Alumni Relations, the senior class officers from the Class of 2020 are working to communicate 2020 alums’ priorities for the celebration to the College while collaborating with the Office of Alumni Relations to plan the details of the event.

“We’re trying to join the feeling of a reunion and the feeling of a commencement while acknowledging that this is completely abnormal,” Class Officer Jane Petersen ’20 said in an interview with the Record.

Petersen told the Record about the challenges of planning this celebration two years after leaving the College, as the class officers began to plan for a commencement ceremony while they were seniors still on campus.

“When you’re a student, you have a better sense of being able to take time to plan a commencement for 500 families,” Petersen said. “It’s definitely a big task that we’ve had to take on, in addition to our already busy postgrad lives, but it’s something that we’ve been entrusted to do.”

Morgan Whaley ’20, a class marshal, told the Record that members of her class have been anticipating information on its in-person celebration ceremony since the College accidentally emailed them materials about the details of the Class of 2021’s commencement ceremony last spring.

“That was the first time we had heard from the College about any commencement — even the word commencement — since [it] told us our own had been postponed,” Whaley said about the College’s mistaken email. “It made people feel a little funny. People [felt] that our class had been forgotten about.”

But Whaley hopes that the July celebration will provide closure for students whose final semester at the College was cut short by unforeseen COVID concerns. “To go from college, which was a big event, to a global pandemic — another big event — with literally zero turnaround, in actuality, overlap, is hard,” she said. “I think it’d be nice to have some closure in that sense.”

Park told the Record that all members of the Class of 2020 are invited to stay in College dorms for free to attend the weekend and that the College will also make rooms in local hotels available at low cost to the families of high and moderate need students.

Petersen stressed the importance of planning a celebration ceremony that provides the feeling of a typical commencement, since this may be the first college graduation celebration that members of the Class of 2020 and their families get to experience.

“For a lot of kids in the Class of 2020, they’re the first people in their families to graduate college, and their families may never have experienced a college graduation before, so we felt like it was really, really important for this to be as normal of an event as possible,” Petersen said.

The College is still in the process of determining the details of the celebration ceremony, but hopes to combine traditional elements of Ivy Exercises and Commencement, Greene wrote in an email to the Record, and will be honoring four of the seven faculty members who retired in 2020 and will be present at the ceremony.

Greene also noted that the College is reaching out to those who were initially elected to commencement positions such as class speaker, class historian, class poet, and class musician to gauge their interests in speaking or performing at the celebration, and that one of the honorary degree recipients typically delivers the commencement address, so the College is working on “alternative speaker possibilities.”

Class Officer Drew Cohen ’20 wrote in an email to the Record that this celebration will take on a meaning for him that differs from that of a traditional commencement ceremony. “Given that we’re two years past the initial shutdown and living our own lives now, I feel that this weekend will give our class a way to reflect and honor the years that we spent at Williams,” Cohen wrote. “Not because we need to feel like we’re grown up and done with Williams, but instead to recognize the ways in which the people we met here have helped us to grow and shaped our lives for the better. It’s an optimistic view, but one that I feel will be important as we come together again in a few months.”