It wasn’t as if they envisioned it, but Pennsylvania State University tried to give its more than 15,000 graduates some joy on virtual commencement day, including congratulations from prominent alumni and a rock-star surprise.

“Hey, Penn State," said Joe Jonas of the Jonas Brothers, who has become a student favorite though he didn’t graduate from Penn State. “Just want to say congratulations on graduating. This is a huge milestone. You’re going to change the world. Love you guys."

More than 82,000 viewers in 121 countries and territories tuned in to the 30-minute virtual commencement that also featured messages from alumni Lara Spencer, coanchor of Good Morning America; Baltimore Ravens quarterback Trace McSorley, whose sister, Micaela, was graduating; and Zena Cardman, a NASA astronaut.

“I know this is not how you envisioned it to be," said Spencer, who spoke in a prerecorded message. “This is not what you wanted for your senior year. I just want you to remember ... we are strong. We are resilient. We are!”

The message from Jonas marked a return by the pop star, who performed at THON in 2017, and last year, the Jonas Brothers visited a sick fan at Penn State Children’s Hospital.

Penn State, like other universities offering virtual commencements this month, has vowed to hold on-campus celebrations when possible.

Penn State awarded more than 12,400 bachelor’s degrees, 1,743 master’s, 298 law, 223 doctoral, 137 medical, 29 medical/graduate degrees, and 184 associate degrees during the ceremony that also featured remarks by Penn State president Eric Barron, board chair Mark Dambly, and provost Nicholas Jones, whose daughter graduated.

Graduate Regina Duesler, who served as executive director of THON, Penn State’s dance marathon fund-raiser for pediatric cancer research and patient support, watched the ceremony at home with her family in Huntingdon Valley.

“Hearing from so many students and faculty brought the feeling of Happy Valley to each of our homes,” said Duesler, a finance and accounting major. “I’m looking forward to seeing everyone back in State College when the time is right, and I’m so grateful to Penn State and everything the university has done to commemorate the Class of 2020.”

Graduating during the pandemic is “bittersweet,” she said. but she underscored the transformative experience Penn State and THON had on her life.

“This is truly just the beginning of our Penn State journey,” she said. "Once a Penn Stater, always a Penn Stater."

Rowan University and Chestnut Hill College also launched virtual commencements Saturday, Rowan on YouTube and Facebook and Chestnut Hill on its website. On Saturday morning, Rowan delivered gifts to about 40 graduating seniors still living on campus because they couldn’t go home and wouldn’t have family with them.

Frank Villarreal, 21, a senior at Rowan University, receives gifts from the school Saturday morning. Villarreal, who is from Venezuela, is one of about 40 seniors still living on the campus.
Courtesy of Rowan University
Frank Villarreal, 21, a senior at Rowan University, receives gifts from the school Saturday morning. Villarreal, who is from Venezuela, is one of about 40 seniors still living on the campus.

Frank Villarreal, 21, a senior from Venezuela, received a poster of B.B. King, one of his favorites, candy, a coffee mug, and a blanket. His family had been making plans to come for commencement but then the virus hit.

He said he planned to talk to them after watching the virtual ceremony.

“I really feel good,” said Villarreal, a radio, TV, film, and journalism major. “Even though things are going a little bit different, it’s still something to be proud of, something to celebrate.”