Two years ago, scores of college graduates missed their opportunity to don caps and gowns and bask in the pomp and circumstance of graduation ceremonies as the COVID-19 pandemic altered life across the globe.
But this spring, as the nation has all but emerged from pandemic shutdown regulations, colleges and universities are calling their 2020 graduates back to campus for makeup, in-person ceremonies. And many of those graduates are gladly returning despite having settled into graduate school programs and careers that have scattered them across the country.
On Sunday, 3,500 members of the University of Pennsylvania’s undergraduate class of 2020 as well as 2021 master’s and doctoral graduates marched onto Franklin Field to whooping cheers from family and friends in the crowd of 12,000.
Precious Okoruwa, 23, a 2020 graduate in the Biological Basis of Behavior program, returned from the University of Indiana, where she is now a first-year medical student. “I wanted to see all the people I spent four years with, because we all grew a lot in those years. I wanted to come back and close out that chapter,” she said before the ceremony began.
Michael Onuchovsky, a 2021 recipient of a master’s degree in higher education, returned from Nacogdoches, Texas, where he now works in student engagement at Stephen F. Austin State University.
“It’s a generational opportunity to be able to attend the University of Pennsylvania. So having the opportunity to actually walk the stage is really important to me and also to represent my family as the first to attend an Ivy League university,” he said.
“I had to come back to see all my buddies and have the real graduation experience. This is going to make everything official,” said Langley Thomas, 24, a 2020 graduate in philosophy, politics, and economics who now lives in Los Angeles, and works in private equity.
“This is both a joyous and sad occasion,” Kathleen Hall Jamieson, chair of the 2020 faculty senate, told the gathering. “Graduates, you are the living legacy of the family members and faculty mentors who made this day possible for you but did not live to celebrate it with you.”
The Rev. Charles L. Howard, the university chaplain, told the graduates in his invocation that by returning to their alma mater they were teaching the lesson that it’s never too late to accomplish goals and celebrate achievements.
“Even through the darkest days of the pandemic we did not doubt that this day would arrive. We knew that we would be here ready to welcome you back,” Wendell Pritchett, Penn’s interim president, told the graduates.
“If we are honest with ourselves today, we must concede that the past two years have been disorienting and dismaying and sometimes downright frightening. And yet, I say with absolute conviction, that we are not disheartened, we are not discouraged, we will not despair,” Pritchett said.
“This amazing class of 2020 gives us unbridled hope for the future. You are the generation of which much is expected, and you unequivocally have proven yourselves up to the task.”
Earlier this month, Pennsylvania State University welcomed back about 1,200 of its more than 18,000 graduates for ceremonies. St. Joseph’s University was expecting nearly 500 graduates from 2020 to a commencement ceremony on Saturday.
And Haverford College, a much smaller institution, is planning a four-day celebration, beginning Thursday and running through Sunday. Nearly 230 of the 324 graduates from 2020 have indicated that they will return for the festivities, which include dinners, Quizzo, an evening at Ardmore Music Hall, lawn games, and a commencement ceremony.
The graduates can stay in the dorms, eat and play — all for free.
“There are people coming from destinations across the world,” said Franklyn Cantor, a 2012 Haverford graduate and former staff member involved in planning the festivities.
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, students were on spring break and never got to return to the school that year, he said. They never had the chance to say goodbye. They never had the chance to fulfill the tradition of ringing Founders Bell on campus and signing inside the cupola. (They’ll get to do that, too, during the week.)
Sheldon Amoo-Mitchual, 23, a 2020 Penn graduate in the Biological Basis of Behavior program, is still on campus now as a medical school student. He said he was glad to see so many of his fellow graduates return.
“It’s really important to reconnect. When COVID hit it was abrupt and we didn’t get a chance to say our goodbyes,” the Lancaster native said. “Getting to see what everyone is doing in grad school, at nonprofits, med school, law school, living out their dreams, that’s really fun.”