Class of 2020 returns for a proper sendoff
"In-Person Celebration of the 113th Commencement" brings back 206 class members -- nearly half of previous May's virtual graduates; Ceremonials include traditional procession with pipers, speeches and chance to walk across dais as a graduate
“At Last!” exclaimed Saint Michael’s College President Lorraine Sterritt as she welcomed 206 members from the Class of 2020 and their families to their long-awaited “In-Person Celebration of the 113th Commencement” on Saturday morning, September 18, 2021, outdoors on the Durick Library steps and lawn.
The number of 2020 class members attending in full cap-and-gown regalia to walk across the dais and have their names called represented close to half of the full 2020 class (501 members with graduate degrees included) that was so deeply affected by the start of the COVID pandemic when they were sent home in March of their senior year. A majority of the class took part in a virtual Commencement during the height of the pandemic in May of 2020.
Much like the past 18 months themselves, Saturday began overcast, but by the end, President Sterritt was truthfully able to say “the sun is shining on you!” Class members and families headed off directly following the 90-minute ceremony to the 300s field for a reception and light refreshments, and more importantly, to reconnect with one another on what was also the College’s regular Alumni and Family Weekend.
All participants, including family and faculty sitting in the audience on chairs set up behind the graduates on the lawn, wore masks in accordance with present College policy. As is traditional for such Commencement ceremonies in normal times, the class members gathered at Alliot Hall shortly before 10 a.m. and marched past the chapel and up the sidewalk to the event site, led by pipers from the St. Andrews Pipe Band of Vermont. Adding to the spirit were members of the present Purple Knights athletics teams, who turned out to line the walkway and cheer for the delayed “graduates,” alongside some visiting alumni who did the same.
Vice President of Academic Affairs Jeffrey Trumbower was master of ceremonies, and so launched the proceedings with introductory remarks followed by a beautiful rendition of the National Anthem by the Saint Michael’s College Chorale directed by Erin Granger. The Chorale also later sang the Vermont state song, “These Green Mountains.” Fr. Brian Cummings, SSE ’86 gave the invocation before the president took to the podium to improvise her joyful recitation of lyrics to the popular standard tune, “At Last.”
“I am SO happy to SEE you!” she told the class after voicing the lyrics “and life is like a song.” “We recognize that the pandemic posed and continues to pose many challenges for our students, our alumni and their families,” she continued. “Our hearts go out” to all suffering from this global crisis.”
“I see you,” Sterritt said, fully acknowledging the melancholy of some of their memories of senior year. “The world you graduated into was not the same world I’m sure you saw out ahead of you when you first embarked on your college voyage,” she said. The president spoke of how impressed and proud she is already of the class after having heard of some of their accomplishments in careers, graduate studies and serving others in the community.
“The future is bright,” she said. “Your plans, as plans inevitably do, will change. In addition, the world — sometimes despite our best efforts – will change, too. May all your changes be for the better — Congratulations and Godspeed.”
Staff and faculty well-wishes then came indirectly from Mary Masson, who was such a wise and professional director of the Bergeron Wellness Center during the height of the pandemic and therefore a key figure in the past 18 months for this class. Trumbower explained that Masson was attending her son’s similar ceremony at Syracuse Saturday, and so had invited Vice President for Student Affairs/Dean of Students Dawn Ellinwood to read her message.
In Masson’s message read by Ellinwood, the Bergeron director told class members they “are the resilient ones for thriving in spite of your circumstances, yours is a special class for enduring what 2020 gave you,” and “you will be better prepared as you move through adulthood because of these circumstances. You didn’t ask to be that special class of people, the class of the pandemic, the class of 2019 and three quarters – but you are truly special and wonderful and stronger and exceptional because of what you’ve lived through and how it shaped who you are today.”
She further advised her listeners to now “slow down and be present for one another, and make self-care part of your daily life” while knowing “that life has challenges, but they all have beginnings, middles and end.” Masson (as read by Ellinwood) further urged them “to use each other for support and love and growth as you enter this new adult life of yours … and most of all enjoy the ride.”
A large part of the ceremony’s 90 minutes was the chance for graduates to line up and march across the dais (Durick steps) in caps and gowns to cheers, and for photographs. Timothy Mackin, associate dean of the College, read the names, one by one. After final congratulatory remarks from President Sterritt, Suzanne Leous ’86 gave traditional well-wishes from the Alumni Association, though noting this group already have been alumni for some months, unlike at most Commencements when the status is entirely new. Fr. Cummings gave the benediction.
The student speaker chosen by 2020 classmates following President Sterritt’s initial remarks was Katelynn Briere, who also was one of four students recognized by Trumbower for special honors (these also were announced during the May 2020 virtual ceremony). Others from that select group present Saturday were valedictorians Dina Alsaffar and Lillian Richardson; not able to attend, however, was the 2020 Father Prevel Award winner (for the class’s outstanding male graduate) Shane Coughlin, who is in law school at Notre Dame. Briere is the 2020 Katherine Fairbanks Award winner for the class’s outstanding woman, and currently in her first year of medical school at the University of Vermont.
“We’re back!” she said to cheers at the start of her speech. She invited class members to look back on the feeling they had entering senior year and acknowledge with her all that anticipation of great experiences that the pandemic interrupted. However, Briere said, the memories of their time on campus for more than three and a half great years still allow them realize “how lucky we were to pursue our hobbies with organizations like the Adventure Sports Center…to give back to the community with MOVE [the service arm of Edmundite Campus Ministry], to do research under faculty… and even travel the world while studying abroad.” Importantly, she said, “the experiences we had brought us close to our peers and led to friendships that have withstood even the times when we could not get together.”
She concluded with an honest and direct admission about the last months of their senior year: “At the end of the day, it was brutal…but we survived it,” Briere said. “And now, this weekend, we’re getting the closure we earned and the chance we deserve to celebrate our accomplishments.”