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The Class of 2020’s group photo at Schoellkopf Field.

Virtual Commencement honors ‘resilient’ Class of 2020

More than a year after they left campus in the midst of an unthinkable global pandemic and moved on to the next stage of their lives – some continuing their education, others launching their careers – the Class of 2020 came together once again, in celebration, with a virtual Commencement June 13.

“As much as I wish I were saying this to you in Schoellkopf, under a sunny sky – or let’s face it, this being Ithaca, possibly a rainy one – I’m still so glad to have this opportunity to congratulate all of you, at this virtual event, for everything you’ve accomplished since you came to Cornell, and since you left it,” President Martha E. Pollack said in a live address.

William S. Nye ’77, better known as Bill Nye the Science Guy.

“The pandemic may have taken away our chance to celebrate together your transition from Cornell students to Cornell alumni,” she said. “But it can never take away your Cornell education, or your Cornell community.”

Pollack also invited the Class of 2020 to return to Ithaca for an in-person celebration, complete with caps and gowns, Sept. 19.

The event, which was part of  Cornell Reunion, included prerecorded congratulations from 14 college deans, who roundly praised the Class of 2020 for their character, resiliency and hope throughout the challenges and uncertainties of the pandemic year.

Also delivering congratulatory messages were a pair of notable and much beloved alumni: educator, author and consummate bow-tie wearer William S. Nye ’77, more popularly known as Bill Nye the Science Guy, and television journalist Kate Snow ’91, who commended the Class of 2020 for being “the best of us.”

“You never imagined your time at Cornell would end like this,” Snow said from the set of NBC News, where she is a correspondent and anchor. “You could’ve complained, you could’ve checked out, you could’ve focused on everything you lost. But you didn’t, because you’re Cornellians. Instead, you got to work.

Kate Snow ’91 commended the Class of 2020 for being “the best of us.”

“You helped sew masks, you donated PPE, you checked on your neighbors, you helped out in your community,” she said. “You started solving problems. … And through it all you kept using your Cornell education to make the world a better place. Because that’s what we do, right?”

Nye offered class members some words of wisdom and encouraged them to learn from others, then use that knowledge to improve the lives of everyone around them.

“If nothing else,” he said, “the pandemic taught us just how fragile our world is right now, how dependent we are on each other, people on the other side of the world in supply chains …. in infections … in remarkable breakthroughs that enabled many of us to get vaccinated and get through this pandemic and move forward and be productive again.”

He also stressed the importance of acknowledging climate change, and he urged the Class of 2020, regardless of their vocation, to work towards promoting clean water, renewable and reliable electricity, and internet access for all.

“Look Cornellians, it’s been an amazing and odd year, an historic year,” he concluded. “You were part of it, and you have the skills now to go out there and make the world better than you found it. So let’s go, Big Red. Get ‘er done.”

Pollack said that while she couldn’t compete with Nye’s advice to never “walk barefoot in a tack factory,” she offered some sage advice of her own.

“Make sure that the educations you began at Cornell, and that you continued in so many different places, continue on, throughout your lives, wherever you may be,” she said. “Let the Cornell ethos of openness and curiosity, of equity and inclusion, of readiness to learn and willingness to explore, stay with you always.

“Whatever lies ahead, for each of you, know that you will forever be a part of this remarkable chapter of Cornell’s history – the class that completed their degrees in circumstances no Cornellians had ever faced before,” she said.

Pollack noted that, while technically, the Class of 2020 were already alumni, and possibly already have their diplomas framed and hung on their walls, she wasn’t about to skip a traditional rite of passage.

“While I don’t need to say it to make it official, I’ll say it anyway,” she said, and conferred their degrees. “Congratulations, graduates.”

President Martha E. Pollack’s remarks at the Class of 2020 Celebration.

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Abby Butler