Saint Michael’s celebrates Class of 2020 in virtual ceremony due to pandemic

College's 113th Commencement is first-ever as a prerecorded online event; thousands join to watch, listen and chat

June 9, 2020
Mark Tarnacki
Staff Writer

New Saint Michael’s College graduate Colby Jordan ’20 celebrates with his family dog Rossignol after he donned his graduation cap and gown and watched a virtual Commencement ceremony online from home in Charlotte, VT. (photo Michelle Jordan)

In the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Saint Michael’s College and its 501 new graduates from the Class of 2020 figuratively marched out of, and into, uncharted territory during an hour-long prerecorded Virtual Commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 10 — energized by ebullient and uplifting live-chat and joined by several thousand graduates, families, faculty and staff online.

Ariel Wish, Saint Michael’s Class of 2020, watches Commencement from her home in rural Waterville, VT, with her best friend on the phone propped against the screen. (photo by Chrissy Wade).

The YouTube event, which premiered at 10 a.m. with about a half-hour of spirited anticipation as people signed on and offered congratulations, shout-outs and happy emojis on the chat, featured words of admiration, support and celebration from President Lorraine Sterritt, Vice President for Academic Affairs Jeffrey Trumbower, Dean of Faculty Tara Natarajan, student speakers, alumni and faculty.  Nearly 3,000 people signed in to view the event at some point, with nearly 1,500 at one time at peak.

While the class size numbers for this 113th Saint Michael’s Commencement are inexact until final grades are tallied and credits are made up in a handful of cases, 75 master’s degrees were conferred and 426 undergraduates according to the virtual program, said Jeffrey Trumbower, vice president for academic affairs.

Near the end of the hour, graduate names scrolled by as class-selected songs about memories and beginnings played in the background while favorite photos sent in by class members went by on the screen carousel. Information Technology and Marketing/Communications staff collaborated to put together the well-received virtual ceremony, which took place on Mother’s Day as many noted in celebratory remarks and on the chat.

A recurring theme from all ceremonial speakers involved the unique challenges and opportunities presented by so singular a shared experience as persevering through a pandemic.

“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” said Fr. Brian Cummings, director of Campus Ministry quoting the day’s Gospel reading during a recorded YouTube Baccalaureate Mass from the College chapel that many watched prior to the virtual Commencement, as he exhorted young people today to “be for the world a second Greatest Generation.”

Major Award announcements

A major moment of this virtual event, as traditionally is the case for live Commencements, was President Sterritt’s announcement of The Katherine Fairbanks Memorial Award and Father Prevel Memorial Award winners, for the woman and man, respectively, “demonstrating commitment and achievement related to the intellectual, spiritual, moral and social values of Saint Michael’s College.”

Fairbanks winner was Katelynn Briere ’20, while the winner of the Prevel award was Shane Coughlin ’20. Both were deeply involved in Saint Michael’s student government alongside their strong academic achievement: Briere as a neuroscience major and summa cum laude graduate from Coventry, VT, and Coughlin as a double major in political science and philosophy from Hudson, N.H., also a summa cum laude graduate; he plans to attend University of Notre Dame Law School next year, after finishing his Saint Michael’s “Degree in Three (years)” program. Briere was president of the Student Government Association. While valedictorians usually are announced at Commencements, this year’s will be announced after final grades are calculated in the next week or so, Trumbower said.

On Monday, the day after the virtual Commencement, President Sterritt sent an email message to the whole community announcing the Valedictorians for the Class of 2020 once final grades had been calculated and posted: “Please join me in congratulating Dina Alsaffar and Lillian Richardson, valedictorians of the Class of 2020. Dina is from South Burlington, Vermont, and yesterday she graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology and Anthropology. Lillian is from Berlin, Vermont and yesterday she graduated summa cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics and Economics. Both Dina and Lillian were also awarded departmental honors. I salute you both for your diligence and dedication to excellence throughout your entire college careers,” the president wrote.

The video ceremony began with an invocation by Rev Lino Oropeza ’11, S.S.E. In their welcome and brief remarks that followed, both President Sterritt and VPAA Trumbower reminded students and family that a live event to celebrate together was being planned for summer of 2021. Trumbower urged anybody to don caps and gowns at their homes, and at the traditional moment, the president led them through moving tassels from right to left symbolizing their transition from students to alumni – many joined in doing so, they reported later.

President: ‘The stuff of stories for grandchildren’

President Sterritt spoke of the perseverance of students and their families in the past two months.

“In a world in which distance is our temporary norm, the closeness that defines your experience at Saint Michael’s is what I want to celebrate today,” she said.  “You’ve seen that both microscopes and metaphors let you understand something better by taking on a new perspective. That’s how we understand the world …” in a journey to achieve personal goals while serving others. “At St. Mike’s, every success – and frankly, every failure – has brought you closer to your goals,” she said, concluding, “These past months have tested all of us. We rose to the challenge, and I especially applaud the great class of 2020. You will never forget your last semester of college. It is the stuff of which stories for your grandchildren will be made. You will forever hold a special place in my heart – Class of 2020 – for what we’ve been through together, apart, but no less together.”


Lucas Heath M’20

This year’s student speakers chosen by their classmates had submitted pre-recorded messages from their homes, where they are isolating. The student speaker chosen from among this year’s master’s graduates was Lucas Heath M’20, clinical psychology, who lives in Burlington, VT; he built his remarks around the message contained on an inspirational pin he found in an old beat-up Subaru that he once bought, “as a good home-grown Vermont boy.” The pin’s message was, “Speak your mind even when your voice shakes.”

He developed the idea that “shaky voice moments” in our lives which stir strong emotions, such as commencement, are worth paying attention to as signals and guideposts. “As you go out and continue to search for what fulfills you and brings you purpose, look out for those shaky voice moments because that’s the direction towards that sweet, sweet feeling of just being yourself,” he said


Maura Dodge ’20

The Senior Address was from Maura C. Dodge ’20, a magna cum laude biology graduate from Attleboro, MA, who opened by honoring mothers and anyone from the class committing to the military and also “all of the front line and essential workers who are making it possible for us to maintain some normalcy right now.”

She said, “I was in a Zoom lecture the other week when my professor told our class, we are contributors. We are the people who enact positive change. Class of 2020, we have been handed a unique card. One that none of us asked for, but we are learning how to make it work. We are contributors, we are a generation of do-ers. I spent the best four years at St. Mike’s. Surrounded by all of you.”

Faculty and staff well-wishes followed, with a montage of pre-recorded vignettes of about 30 seconds or less in tightly edited succession from student life, academic, staff and student leaders of every variety. They were warm, personal and hopeful in tone. After the president ceremonially conferred the degrees with traditional language, the new alumni heard from George Bowen ’92, president of the Alumni Association, who reminded graduates they just “went from a class of almost 400 to a group of 20,000 strong, and you have a lot in common.” He acknowledged the next year might be difficult to start, and recalled how he graduated during a recession. To help, he said, connect with alumni —“we call it building your teams” — to enrich lives through other graduates who can give career guidance. “I look forward to celebrating with you in person on campus next June,” Bowen said.

screen shot rescue

Names of graduates scroll by on the right of this screen-grab from the 2020 Saint Michael’s Virtual Commencement as the slide carousel shows an image of a student volunteer of Saint Michael’s College Fire and Rescue.

As photos submitted by class members from their four years played on the video as chat shout-outs of love and encouragement flashed up rapid-fire, music selections played by class members and recorded included:  “You’re Gonna Miss This,” a Trace Adkins song performed by Phillip Stamp ’20 on vocals and guitar; “River and Roads” a song by The Head and the Heart performed by Rachel High ’20, vocals, Hattie Wilczewski ’20, vocals and Alexander Bigelow ’19, guitar; and an original piece, “Commencement,” written and performed by Ronald Russell ’20. A gentle traditional medley on guitar by William Ellis of the Fine Arts/music faculty wound up the sound track.

The program stated that the 113th Commencement was dedicated to retiring faculty: Donna Bozzone, Professor of Biology, 33 years of service; Peter Hope, Instructor of Biology, 28 years of service; Karen Talentino, Professor of Biology, 12 years of service; Peter Tumulty, Professor of Philosophy, 46 years of service; and, in recognition of their many years of service to Saint Michael’s College and their devotion to students as teachers and mentors, In memory of: John Hanagan, Philosophy, 1967-1994; Gifford R. Hart, Jr., Journalism, 1970-1995; Frederick J. Maher, Sociology, 1966-1996; and Barry D. Roy ’67, Member, Board of Trustees, 2011-2019.

In an email to the full community after the ceremony, Elizabeth O’Dowd of the Applied Linguistics faculty spoke for many in her enthusiastic appreciation for the online ceremony: “What a beautiful, well put together Commencement ceremony! Thought I’d watch with one eye while doing other things, but between the chat screen, the You Tube Comments, the scrolling names, and the slide show of happy graduates, I couldn’t look away. Dare I say…. the energy was almost more charged and sustained than at a traditional ceremony (and I’ve seen 24 of them). The warm greetings from President Sterritt, priests, faculty, staff and alumni were from the heart; the student speeches were perfect; and you pulled it all off in just over an hour. Thanks to IT and everyone who did such an amazing job. I’m so proud of St. Mike’s.” Other viewers reported being moved to tears by watching the online Commencement.

The recorded Benediction from the chapel came from Rev. Marcel Rainville ’67, SSE, Trustees chair. While the pandemic “has deeply disturbed our complacency,” Fr. Rainville said, it also has reminded people of the value of life and of becoming one human family. The members of the Class of 2020 are “all charged with transforming the world,” he said.


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