‘Forever grateful’: After two years, Class of 2020 celebrates commencement in person

Cameron Pugh

(Photo courtesy of Williams College Office of Communications.)

The Class of 2020 finally celebrated its in-person commencement on July 23, more than two years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic upended typical graduation plans. Roughly 430 graduates and 1200 guests attended the ceremony, which graduates said was overdue closure on their time at the College.

 President Maud S. Mandel first announced the plan to hold an in-person commencement during the weekend of July 22–24, 2022, in an email sent to the class last summer. The announcement came over a year after the College decided to postpone the ceremony rather than hold it virtually.

The ceremony resembled pre-pandemic commencements: Mandel, class officers, Chaplain to the College Valerie Bailey Fischer, and Commencement Speaker Charles B. Dew gave speeches. In a unique tribute to the Class of 2020, alum band Darlingside performed a set as the ceremony ended. 

Melinda Kan-Dapaah ’20 said that returning to campus after such a long time was bizarre yet fulfilling. “It felt so surreal,” she said. “It was a nice break away from real life… It was a nice way to catch up with people that I hadn’t seen since 2020 or hadn’t spoken to since early in the pandemic. It was nice to relive the Williams experience with them.”

Adrian Oxley ’20 said he was surprised by how strange it felt to be back on campus. “I didn’t expect it to feel so daunting,” he said. “I didn’t expect it to feel like such a task… I don’t think it ever felt how it used to, but it’s not supposed to — I’m coming back [to the College] as an adult with a little more life under my belt.” 

For Amanda Chen ’20, this was the second commencement she attended at the College recently; she also returned to campus last June when the Class of 2021 had its graduation

“It did feel weird to see people younger than me graduating before we did,” Chen said. “I think it also made me grateful, in a way. Because we waited two years, we got to do something closer to a commencement with all the activities, including some things indoors.” 

In addition to the in-person ceremony, the graduates also went to Mount Hope, a tradition that usually takes place during senior week, preceding commencement. Oxley described the festivities as “a nice little wind-down” from the formal ceremony and said he was glad that the graduates had a chance to “enjoy [their] own company.” 

Chen agreed, adding that at Mount Hope, the significance of graduation began to dawn on her. “Senior spring, I know we were all looking forward to [going to Mount Hope],” she said. “That was when it really hit me, that this is the last time I’ll see all these people in this context.” 

Oxley, who was elected as the class poet, said speaking on stage after two years of anticipation was his favorite part of the weekend. “I was in the zone,” he said. “Once I started, I wished it would never end.”

He formatted his poem as a rap, which elicited both laughter and cheers from the audience. He said he was inspired chiefly by his memories of the College, its people, and his girlfriend, Dominique Burgess ’20.

“I just wanted to make sure that every group was represented in some way or another,” he said. “For the last couple of years, that poem was just scraps. It must have had, like, 16 different lines… [Burgess] helped me workshop it and flesh it out… My biggest inspiration was her.” 

Chen, who also gave a speech as valedictorian, found her inspiration elsewhere. “The thing that really inspired me was going to my boyfriend’s graduation, which was also delayed two years,” she said. “All these things that you didn’t realize you had forgotten, including feelings and people… That inspired me. I wanted to speak as if I were reflecting on the graduation in the moment itself.”

Not every member of the class was able to enjoy the in-person graduation, however. Just over 100 graduates — including Class Speaker Theophyl Kwapong ’20 — could not attend. Kwapong chose Kan-Dapaah to read his speech at the ceremony, which she said was an honor.

“It was an honor that he asked me, but it was also big shoes to fill,” she said. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘These are Theo’s words, and reading it will show that it’s Theo.’ So I just wanted to be as Melinda as possible while also making sure that I did him justice.” 

Kan-Dapaah added that she felt a tinge of sadness because she didn’t have the chance to walk the stage with some of her good friends from the College. “There are so many … people that I can think of, especially those that live abroad,” she said. “It was just harder for them to make it. It was kind of sad. But that’s the beauty of social media now — we can keep in touch in a way that our parents couldn’t.”

Despite the atypical circumstances of the ceremony, Oxley said that he was grateful that most of the class could have closure on their college experience. “It felt like a proper homecoming,” he said. “I had my moment, I had my closure, [and] I have something that I can look back on fondly. I want to be able to take that feeling and have it carry me to my next phase… It was everything it had to be, and I’ll be forever grateful.”