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Arizona State University celebrated its newest graduates virtually on Monday, marking the most extraordinary graduation in the history of the institution.
The half-hour recording took the place of the spring 2020 commencement ceremonies that were to be held at Sun Devil Stadium (undergraduate) and Desert Financial Arena (graduate), where thousands of students and their families were going to mark their graduation. The in-person commencement transitioned to a virtual ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. ASU switched to remote learning and teaching in mid-March.
The Class of 2020, more than half of whom are Arizona residents, included about 11,200 undergraduate students (about 4,200 of those online), more than 5,000 graduate students, more than 900 military-affiliated students and more than 6,500 students graduating with honors, the largest cohort to hold that distinction. Among the newest ASU alumni were nearly 700 Starbucks College Achievement Plan graduates and five students making up the first graduating cohort of ASU's partnership with ride-share company Uber,
Monday's virtual ceremony included elements of a typical commencement: “Pomp and Circumstance,” the university mace, and congratulations and encouragement for ASU’s nearly 16,400 graduates from several distinguished speakers.
ASU President Michael Crow thanked the students for their perseverance through uncertainty and complexity.
“This is a hugely important day. Students’ lives are moving forward,” he said. “They completed successfully their last term, their projects, their activities, engaging in hundreds of thousands of video interactions and millions of minutes of Zoom time.
“It’s been a fantastic moment of opportunity and creativity.”
Crow said that the message of the times is, “Be prepared.”
“You need to be prepared to enhance your learning. You need to be prepared to enhance your innovation capabilities. You need to enhance your voice with new ideas and new ways of getting things done. You need to be prepared to create,” he said.
“Be prepared to do what’s necessary to help us address all the complexities that our modern world confronts us with.”
Ruth McGregor, former chief justice of the Arizona Supreme Court, told the graduates that they have been tested.
“You have already demonstrated courage and the will to continue as you completed your degrees under the most unexpected and difficult circumstances imaginable,” she said.
“You are fortunate because you already know that you can overcome obstacles and continue to follow your path.”
The speakers also acknowledged the sadness of the circumstances.
Leah Jones, president of the Graduate and Professional Student Association at ASU, who is earning her PhD in sustainability, asked the graduate students to close their eyes and imagine being together at commencement.
“As we open our eyes, this image is not what surrounds us,” she said.
“We’re at home, maybe with family or maybe we’re alone. We’re preoccupied by the context of our world, by the way it’s distorted our lives and that of people around us.”
She recognized that graduates may be feeling disappointment and frustration.
“Even if you don’t feel in a celebratory mood, I encourage you to pause even for just a moment, and be proud of all that you accomplished,” she said.
Luis Alberto Moreno, a graduate of the Thunderbird School of Global Management and the president of the Inter-American Development Bank, told the graduates that although the outlook is uncertain, they should consider the big picture.
“You have to remember that you have earned a degree at a highly respected university in what is the world’s most advanced nation,” he said. “Only the tiniest fraction of humanity has access to the kind of opportunities you have had at ASU.”
He said that the Class of 2020 is graduating at a turning point in history.
“This crisis that we’re experiencing, with all of its heartbreaking costs, might well give birth to profound social, economic and political change — changes that we can only begin to imagine,” he said.
“And the world that will emerge from this challenge will need smart, energetic and, more importantly, creative people like you to shape and to lead those changes.”
The ceremony included highlights of the past four years of the Class of 2020, including Sun Devil Welcome in August 2016, the renovations of Sun Devil Stadium and Hayden Library, Olympian Michael Phelps joining the “Curtain of Distraction,” “Hamilton” at ASU Gammage in 2018 and the rapid move of everything online this past semester.
In addition to the virtual commencement, colleges and schools also are hosting virtual convocations on May 11-12. At those smaller ceremonies, there will be a special moment for each graduate with their name, photo, degree and a comment from them about their future.
Today’s graduates also can attend the December 2020 or May 2021 in-person commencement ceremonies if they wish.
The end of the commencement video included a performance of the alma mater by the Devil Clefs student group, with scenes from the ASU community over the past two months: making personal protective equipment, researching the virus in labs, treating patients, collecting donations and painting the “A” blue to honor health care workers.
Then the maroon and gold balloons dropped onscreen.