One Year Later, the Class of 2020 Relishes In-Person Celebrations

May 16, 2021 By Caroline Newman, Caroline Newman,

One year ago, Final Exercises for the University of Virginia’s Class of 2020 were, like so many other things in 2020, shifted online as the world grappled with the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Sunday, though, more than 2,800 of the graduates who gathered around screens last year massed behind the Rotunda, in person and in full color. Their morning and afternoon processions down the Lawn kicked off one of the most poignant and historic Final Exercises celebrations in UVA history.

There were still some notable differences from typical Final Exercises at UVA. The ceremony itself was held in Scott Stadium, to comply with public health requirements, and the graduates didn’t come into the day fresh from final exams; they came back one year later from new jobs, new schools and new homes.

Related Story

Families gather in the stadium socially distanced as a graduate walks to find a seat
Graduates and their families gathered in Scott Stadium. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

One couple, Anzel and Bryce Hall, were married last May and traveled back from New Jersey, where Bryce, formerly a star cornerback for the UVA football team, is now with the New York Jets.

“Being able to come back, be with our friends and walk the Lawn, which is such a tradition, is an important moment, even though we have our degrees,” Anzel Hall said.

Other graduates, like Abigail Copley, Catherine Strawley and Alexis Kaiser, had remained in Charlottesville and were welcoming friends back. Copley earned her master’s degree in the School of Education and Human Development, Strawley completed a master’s in public health, and Kaiser was celebrating her graduation from the School of Nursing, having already worked for a year as a nurse at UVA Health.

“It felt really important to come and celebrate,” Copley said, noting that the trio were also finding ways to virtually include friends who had not been able to return.

“I am really ready for that symbolic feeling of closure,” said Education School graduate Tommy Farrier. Beside him, fellow graduate Regina Garrett said a certain relative of hers was very excited for the day.

“My grandma made me [come back],” Garrett joked. Garrett traveled with her grandmother from Dallas and was excited to see her in the stadium.  

Graduates sitting in socially distanced chairs
Graduates filled rows of chairs on the field, spaced apart in compliance with public health guidelines. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Also in the stands, parents Mike and Evangeline Barr had driven from Northern Virginia to celebrate their daughter Elizabeth, who graduated from the College of Arts & Sciences with an English literature degree.

“She was disappointed last year, when so much was taken away,” Evangeline Barr said, reflecting on the onset of the pandemic last year and her daughter’s return this year. “We are excited that she is excited.”

Though the location was slightly different, much of the traditional pomp and circumstance shone through during the day Sunday. The 2020 graduates processed the Lawn, as is tradition at UVA, before heading into the stadium, and the sights and sounds of Final Exercises – colorful caps, excited cheers, bobbing balloons (later collected and donated to UVA’s Children’s Hospital) – were as joyful as ever and even more poignant.

Graduating? Let’s stay in touch! Sign up for the UVA Today Daily Report to get news every weekday morning. Subscribe.

Some of the biggest cheers of the day came when President Jim Ryan and Provost Liz Magill symbolically re-conferred the class’s degrees – giving them a chance to cheer each other, loud, proud and in person.

There were also some special details and surprises designed just for this returning class. 2020 alumni Summer Chambers, in the morning, and Jordan Brown, in the afternoon, sang the national anthem, accompanied by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command Band. A video, made by 2020 graduate Jessica Harris, checked in with members of the class scattered around the country and the world, sharing what they are doing now, from starting new jobs or graduate programs (often remotely), to establishing their own start-up companies or, in many cases, serving on the front lines of the pandemic. At the end of that video, men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett offered his own congratulations, garnering a big cheer.

Omar Elhaj, right, and Ginny Brooks, left, stand at the podium giving a speech together
Class of 2020 President Omar Elhaj, right, and Vice President Ginny Brooks took the class on a tour of the last year – things they missed, things they learned, things they questioned. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Class of 2020 President Omar Elhaj and Vice President Ginny Brooks offered a list of memories and lessons from the past year – some funny, others touching. Ultimately, Elhaj said, the last year, for all its hardship, offered a chance to ask some important questions. 

“We can look back at this year and see the obvious loss we have had, but we can also utilize our experiences at UVA to look more critically at the world around us,” Elhaj said. “It has made me appreciate the need to keep questioning.”

Another 2020 graduate, Hannah M. Semmes, shared a poem she wrote during the pandemic, “The Clock,” which was published in the UVA Arts magazine. The poem is about the lost memories, moments, hugs and time of a pandemic year, but Seemes – who graduated from the Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy – added a stanza to celebrate the redemption of at least a few of those moments Sunday.

“We have at last walked the Lawn, we have at last worn the honor of honors,” Semmes read. “Go forth today, with our memories of yesterday, knowing we will always be legends tomorrow. Bells toll the hours and clocks keep ticking, but our time strolling Virginia’s Corinthian columns will forever be memorialized in marble stone.”

Hannah M. Semmes standing at the podium giving a speech at Final Exercises
2020 graduate Hannah M. Semmes read a new version of a poem she wrote during the pandemic, “The Clock.” (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Alumnus and singer-songwriter Nathan Colberg, who graduated in 2017, drove eight hours from his home in Nashville to add his musical talents to the day, singing his original song, “Charlottesville” at both the morning and afternoon ceremonies. Colberg wrote the song while a student at UVA, and it became familiar to the 2020 graduates who overlapped with him.  

Another surprise came at the very end of the ceremony, when comedian and late night host Stephen Colbert and his wife, Evie, who graduated from UVA in 1985, popped onto the Jumbotron to lead Scott Stadium in the “Good Old Song.”

Looking out over the graduates as they assembled in the stadium Sunday morning, Ryan said he had “been looking forward to this moment for a very long time.”

“I would like to be the first to officially welcome the Class of 2020 back to Grounds,” he said, speaking from a podium set up at one end of the field, before a sea of graduates in white chairs.

President Ryan standing at a wooden podium giving a speech at graduation
UVA President Jim Ryan welcomed the Class of 2020 back to Grounds after a year, acknowledging the effort many had to put in to return. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

Ryan thanked the staff who made the day possible and the parents and families in the stands and watching at home, asking the class to stand and applaud all who helped them get to this day. And of course, Ryan thanked the Class of 2020 for their patience and resilience in the face of unprecedented circumstances. (Read the full text of Ryan’s remarks.)

“I know that just getting here was no small feat for many of you,” he said. “I’m glad you stuck with it, and I’m thrilled to see so many of you here.”

During last year’s virtual ceremonies, Ryan asked the members of the class what they would carry with them as they left UVA so unexpectedly, and what they would carry with them as the world restarts.

“I expressed my hope that you carry with you the core values of this place, like trust, honor, and integrity. I hoped you would also carry forward the lessons you learned here, like how to read critically, how to empathize, how to lead, and how to build bridges across lines of differences,” he said. “I continue to have all of those hopes for all of you, but seeing you all here, surrounded by your friends and your family, it’s clear to me that you have all carried with you perhaps the most important thing of all – the people you love and the people who love you. I hope you cherish this moment together. It was a long time in coming, but some things are worth waiting for, and we will do our best to make it unforgettable.”

Speaking after Ryan, UVA Rector James B. Murray Jr. urged the graduates to never stop learning. (Read the full text of Murray’s remarks.)

“Seek new knowledge, always, then seek more for the rest of your life,” Murray said. “Then, come back to Charlottesville. You will be welcome here forever. Circle back; you must, to tell us what you have seen and the stories of your life. Bring us new knowledge.”

Murray also introduced the day’s featured speaker, Melody C. Barnes.

Barnes, the Dorothy Danforth Compton Professor, is the co-director of UVA’s Democracy Initiative and a professor of practice at UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. She is also a senior fellow at the Karsh Center for Law & Democracy and an affiliated faculty member of UVA’s School of Law.

Barnes has more than 25 years of public policy experience and served as an adviser to President Barack Obama and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council. She was also chief counsel to the late U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy during his time on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

On Sunday, Barnes spoke to the Class of 2020 about life between milestone events – what she called “the in-between times.” In her marriage to her husband Marland, Barnes said, the wedding was wonderful, but it is the “in-between times” – the late-night talks, the laughs, the ups and downs – that make a life. (Read the full text of Barnes’ remarks.)

Melody Barnes standing at the podium during Final Exercises giving a speech
Melody Barnes, who co-directs UVA’s Democracy Initiative, spoke about the importance of treating citizenship not as a noun, but as a verb. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak, University Communications)

For all the beauty, pomp and circumstance of graduation, “my prediction is that what will stay with you, for the rest of your lives, is what happened in between the day you arrived on beautiful Grounds and this moment right now,” Barnes said. “Late-night conversations with roommates. Meals at the dining hall with new friends. A class discussion that changed your entire perspective. Coffee and bagels at Bodo’s. Trips to the library, music practice, cheering for the Hoos – who can forget those national championships? What you did during the long, dark days of the pandemic. The moments you took to seek career advice. And of course, the Zoom meetings.”

Graduates standing in a line while wrapping their arms around each other
As always, the ceremony ended with a rendition of the “Good Old Song” – this time with a surprise video appearance from Stephen and Evie Colbert. (Photo by Dan Addison, University Communications)

Then, Barnes turned to the topic she has built her career around and fully embraced at UVA – strengthening and sustaining American democracy. 

Like life, she said, democracy is “realized and strengthened in those in-between times,” not just during presidential elections or big news moments.

“Like what happens between your first day of school and graduation, it turns out that the everyday actions of citizens can and do pave our country’s path,” Barnes said. “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.”

Every person in the stadium Sunday has “a role to play as a citizen,” Barnes said – something we were reminded of during the pandemic and have seen over and over again in American history, as individual citizens jumped to volunteer, help and fight for what they believe in.

“The story of America is complicated. It’s like us; it’s noble and it is paradoxical – but ultimately, it is about the expansion of freedom and opportunity. We might hope for faster progress or quicker results, but the slope of the arc depends on us,” Barnes said. “So, it is my greatest wish for you, Class of 2020, is that you ask yourselves: Are you treating citizenship as a noun or a verb?”

“Your actions – or your decision not to act – come with their own consequences. I urge you not to delegate those tasks and responsibilities to others, but to embrace the fulfillment that can come from taking part in democracy. And remember, it is in those in-between times that we can truly fulfill the promise of robust self-governance, a thriving democracy and a meaningful life.”