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U.Va. holds in-person graduation ceremony for the Class of 2020 after one year delay

Members of the Class of 2020 were able to walk the Lawn before speeches were given in Scott Stadium

The ceremony began with the traditional academic procession from the Lawn to Scott Stadium.
The ceremony began with the traditional academic procession from the Lawn to Scott Stadium.

Final Exercises for the Class of 2020 were held in-person in Scott Stadium Sunday after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the traditional graduation ceremony into a year of cancellations and postponements. The ceremony was originally scheduled to be held over two days on May 16 and 17, 2020 — exactly one year earlier. 

Final Exercises for the Class of 2020 were rescheduled three times — first to October 2020, then May 2021, and subsequently May 2022. When the ceremony was first postponed, it was the first time the ceremony did not take place as planned since its inception in 1829. A virtual degree conferral was instead held in May 2020 to commemorate graduating students. Sunday’s ceremony marked a symbolic re-conferring of degrees. 

Despite the initial rescheduling of the ceremony to May 2022, University President Jim Ryan noted that Sunday’s Final Exercises would be the last official Final Exercises for the Class of 2020. A reunion-style social event will also be held for Class of 2020 graduates in the summer of 2022.

To accommodate for physical distancing requirements and health and safety guidelines, two ceremonies were held — one in the morning beginning at 9 a.m. and the other in the afternoon beginning at 2 p.m. Capacity limits on the Lawn and Stadium remained in effect, capping graduation ceremonies at a maximum of 5,000 people, or 30 percent of the facility’s capacity. 

In accordance with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, those fully vaccinated against COVID-19 were not required to wear a mask indoors and outdoors. An individual is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after their final dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. 

The ceremony began with the traditional academic procession from the Lawn to Scott Stadium. Each 2020 graduate was allowed to bring two guests to the ceremony, but guests were unable to watch the procession in person — instead, the procession was aired live over the stadium’s jumbotron, and the entire ceremony was also live-streamed for those who were unable to attend the events in-person. 

“Normally, Final Exercises is a rock solid point on the calendar that you know about years in advance and can count on,” Ryan said in his welcome speech. “Not this time. As with almost everything else during this pandemic, uncertainty reigned, and you had to suffer through several changes of plans and a number of curveballs, including the recent gas shortage … in any event, I know that just getting here was no small feat for many of you. I’m glad you stuck with it, and I’m thrilled to see so many of you here.” 

Melody Barnes, Dorothy Danforth Compton Professor and Co-Director of the Democracy Initiative, delivered a commencement speech on democracy and citizenship in the United States, actively encouraging the Class of 2020 to participate in their communities and advocate for change. 

Barnes spoke about the importance of voting in elections, but emphasized that while elections are necessary, they are insufficient to sustain democracy. Instead, it is the everyday actions of citizens that pave the country’s path to the future. 

“It is what each of us chooses to do during those in-between times that strengthens our institutions and holds our elected officials accountable, that animates our democratic principles and aspirations, that builds and defines our democratic culture, and it requires each of us, whatever our skills, to contribute,” Barnes said. “No matter what you studied at the University of Virginia, no matter your career path or your current job, you have a role to play as a citizen.”

Barnes mentioned that collective action is required in order to improve the lives of others and determine success. While Barnes acknowledged the complicated nature of the story of America, the expansion of freedom and opportunity define the country. 

“We might hope for faster progress or quicker results, but the slope of that arc depends on us,” Barnes said. “It is my greatest wish for you, class of 2020, that you ask yourselves, are you treating citizenship like a noun or a verb? And not just on election day, but everyday.”

After the address, Class of 2017 alumnus and singer-songwriter Nathan R. Colberg performed his original song “Charlottesville.” University alumni spoke about their current experiences and memories at the University in a special video message to the Class of 2020, which was followed by a surprise video message from basketball coach Tony Bennett. 

Ryan then introduced a re-conferring of degrees and Vice Provost Liz Magill presented the graduates by having members of the Class of 2020 stand up by school. Graduates were not recognized on an individual basis. 

To conclude the ceremony, comedian Stephen Colbert and his wife Evelyn McGee-Colbert, a 1985 alumna of the University, offered their congratulations to the Class of 2020 in a surprise video message before introducing the performance of “The Good Old Song.”