Virtual Celebration Honors Grads With Surprise Performances, Poignant Reflections

May 16, 2020 By Caroline Newman, Caroline Newman,

On Saturday – what was to have been their graduation day – the members of the University of Virginia’s Class of 2020 gathered in front of television screens and computer monitors around the world to celebrate their achievements in the only way possible right now.

The virtual celebration and degree ceremony – streamed Saturday afternoon and posted on the Class of 2020 Celebration site – included surprise appearances by Dave Matthews, who got his start playing around UVA and Charlottesville, and renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as remarks from President Jim Ryan, speaking solo on the Lawn in full academic regalia, and performances by student groups.

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The event was not intended to replace Final Exercises, which will be held in-person in either October or May, depending on the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, this virtual celebration was designed to create a moment of reflection, to honor this extraordinary class and, with the conferring of degrees, to mark the official end of this extraordinary academic year.

UVA Class of 2020 Virtual Celebration

Ma opened the event with a performance of “Appalachia Waltz” from his home, as shots of the graduates and memories from the past four years scrolled by on the screen.

Later, Matthews played a new song, “Singing From the Windows,” that seemed perfectly written for these times of quarantine, accompanied by photos of quarantined fourth-year students posing in their windows. Scores of students also came together via videoconference for another performance, of “Pompeii,” by Bastille.

A special year in review video highlighted academic achievements, research accomplishments and the joys of life on Grounds, from Lighting of the Lawn to the year’s first snow and UVA’s first Orange Bowl appearance, before chronicling the abrupt halt of such normalcy and, most importantly, honoring the resilience with which students, faculty and staff carried on. 

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello

Cellist Yo-Yo Ma, shown here, and singer-songwriter Dave Matthews turned in surprise performances for the Class of 2020. Ma performed “Appalachia Waltz” and, of course, “The Good Old Song.”

The day also included the conferral of degrees, as one by one the deans of each of UVA’s 12 schools stepped up to a podium – more than six feet away from Ryan – to present degree candidates from their schools, just as they usually do each May.

“This is clearly not our typical ceremony, nor is it the one we hoped to have,” Ryan said as he prepared to confer the degrees. “I am deeply sorry not to be together in person, but I look forward to seeing all of you who can make it right here on the Lawn either this fall or next spring.

“In the meantime, we will do our best to celebrate all of you, and it is my job to officially award degrees. You have worked hard to get here, and it is my pleasure to welcome you into the company of superbly educated citizen-leaders.”

Woman looking out an open window to the camera

As Dave Matthews played “Singing From the Windows,” portraits of quarantined students rolled across the screen.

Ryan then went through a ceremonial script with each dean, honoring graduates of each school and charging them to use their knowledge and expertise to help others and better the world.

Though it did not take place as usual, it was an important moment for the more than 7,000 students receiving degrees this year, including 4,250 baccalaureate degrees – 167 earned in three years and five in two years’ time – as well as approximately 3,000 graduate and professional degrees.

Around the world, each of those students and their families and friends did what they could to make the moment special, and to honor the years of hard work and achievement that went into it.

In Charlottesville, Omar Elhaj, president of the Fourth-Year Trustees and a member of the committee that helped develop alternatives to May Final Exercises, watched the virtual celebration with his roommates, with whom he has been quarantining since the pandemic begin. Celebratory drinks in hand, they were determined to enjoy the moment together, even if it did not look as they imagined.

“Our biggest priority is just being together and celebrating each other,” said Elhaj, who earned degrees in political and social thought and economics.

In Dallas, the Holsteen family, like many other Cavalier families, gathered in their living room to mark Ceileigh Holsteen’s graduation from the School of Nursing and look back at her four years in Charlottesville. Ceileigh will soon begin work as a critical care nurse at Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, Texas.

Ceileigh Holsteen with her parents each holding cookies decorated for graduation

School of Nursing graduate Ceileigh Holsteen celebrated with her parents - and custom cookies - in Dallas, Texas. (Contributed photo)

“She is my first-born, my only daughter, and Virginia felt very far from Texas,” Janice Holsteen said, recalling her daughter’s decision to attend UVA, where she earned a Jefferson Scholarship. “I knew it was the right decision, but it was difficult.”

Before she moved to UVA her first year, Ceileigh gave her mother a necklace with charms for Virginia and Texas.

“I wore the necklace every day she was at UVA,” Holsteen said.

On Saturday, they celebrated in style. Family and friends who had originally planned to travel to Charlottesville for the ceremony had food from Ceileigh’s favorite Mexican restaurant delivered to the Holsteens’ house, as well as decorations for Saturday’s virtual celebration. Right after the celebration, several friends planned a drive-by parade to cheer the new graduate.

“What have you discovered or rediscovered in this time of isolation that you want to carry with you when the world restarts? And what in particular do you want to carry with you from UVA? ”

- Jim Ryan

Back in Charlottesville, Ryan offered a few remarks for those listening around the world – starting with some reflections on coffee. Or, more specifically, a lack of coffee. (View Ryan's full remarks.)

Recalling a long-ago camping trip when he and his wife, Katie, forgot to pack coffee, Ryan joked about missing that crucial part of his life – and, more seriously, asked graduates to think about what this time of deprivation could teach them.

“We have had to do without of much of what makes up our normal lives,” Ryan said. “My guess is that this has helped you think about what is important to you – what you can live without and what you can’t – and my hope is that as you prepare to re-enter the world at some point and start the next chapter of your lives, you are thinking hard about what you want to bring with you.”

“What have you discovered or rediscovered in this time of isolation that you want to carry with you when the world restarts?” Ryan asked. “And what in particular do you want to carry with you from UVA?”

Holding up the mug that he drinks his coffee from each morning, a gift from his daughter Phebe that says “I ‘Heart’ Dad,” Ryan said that this time of quarantine has reinforced his deep gratitude for those he loves, and who love him.

“This gratitude is what I try to carry forward every day, and I am pretty sure I could leave the rest behind,” he said. “My hope is that, because of your time at UVA, you are in a better position to know what you should carry with you, and what you should leave behind, that you are in a better position to answer not only the age-old question of ‘What is the good life?’ but the more specific question of ‘What is my good life?’”

Collage of students singing in zoom windows

The University Singers – all 90 of them – closed the virtual celebration with “The Good Old Song.”

With that question lingering – and the hope of gathering together soon still on the horizon – the virtual celebration closed, as Final Exercises usually does, with the “The Good Old Song,” played first by Ma and then sung by the 90 members of University Singers in virtual harmony, each one joining, via video, from his or her own home.

Like the rest of the celebration, and this time of isolation, it was far from normal, but it was a poignant reminder of what all UVA graduates, including the University’s newest alumni, can carry forward.