Sixteen months after receiving their degrees, the Class of 2020 – whose final year at Cornell was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic – donned caps and gowns at last, gathering in person at Schoellkopf Field for a ceremony that was at turns jubilant and thoughtful.
“I know that some of us felt this day might never come – but here we are,” President Martha E. Pollack told the crowd of 1,860 graduates and 3,650 guests. “I am just so incredibly glad to have you here today, celebrating your Cornell commencement the way a Cornell commencement should be celebrated: on Schoellkopf Field, in caps and gowns, on one of those always-sunny Ithaca days.”
The ceremony – which honored 2020 undergrads, graduate and professional students, as well as August 2019 and December 2019 graduates – took place as part of Homecoming. Following Pollack’s speech, actor Leslie Odom Jr. addressed the graduates virtually, offering advice and recounting how he felt when Lin-Manuel Miranda offered him the role of Aaron Burr in the musical “Hamilton.”
In June 2021, the Class of 2020 was feted with a virtual Commencement and addressed by Pollack and speakers Kate Snow ’91 and Bill Nye ’77; Pollack then invited the graduates to return to campus for the Sept. 19 celebration.
On this cloudless 70 degree September day, with the stands filled with smiling faces, Pollack called for loud and raucous cheers, including one for the camera live-streaming the event to people around the world. After the cheers, Pollack led a moment of silence, to honor the losses endured during the pandemic.
The class of 2020 was in the middle of their final semester, looking ahead to the future, when “the world turned upside down” as the pandemic forced the university to send everyone home in March 2020, Pollack said.
“Our Cornell community was suddenly a Cornell diaspora,” Pollack said. “You finished your degrees at your kitchen tables and in your childhood bedrooms, as you talked and texted and FaceTimed with your friends, and you never really said goodbye.”
As 2020 unfolded, students moved forward with new jobs or graduate programs, she said. “And wherever you went, no matter how far you traveled, you knew, like Odysseus – that one day you would come home again, to Ithaca. And you did!”
Homecoming weekend, a tradition over a century old, is a little different this year, Pollack said. More than a return to campus, it represents a time for these graduates to celebrate their time at Cornell, a place that will always be their home, she said.
“I am nonetheless so glad to have you here again, and to tell you in person what I’ve wanted so long to say to you,” Pollack concluded. “Congratulations Class of 2020. May the educations you began here never truly end; may they continue on, throughout your lives, wherever they may take you; and may the knowledge and the ethos you gained here always guide your paths. Cornell will always be a part of you, as you will always be a part of Cornell.”
The graduates were also congratulated by Provost Michael I. Kotlikoff and Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi, who introduced Odom.
Odom began by joking about the challenges of speaking virtually, without a crowd to cheer or laugh at his jokes or patter to “pad” his speech. He referred to the 2017 senior class Convocation speaker, President Joe Biden, who “spent like four minutes on the weather,” Odom said. “You know, I don’t get [to do] that.”
“No one gets to a day like this without meeting and overcoming some challenge or obstacle,” he said. “And while I have no idea what your dragon was, your presence on this day is evidence of your triumph over it.”
Odom received his own bachelor of fine arts degree in theater from Carnegie Mellon University in 2003. While performing was the “soft skill” he honed, his “training and experience in empathy” was the most useful as a “working professional, as a citizen, as a friend, as a business owner and employer, a dad,” he said.
His big acting break came at 17, when he was hired for the Broadway company of the musical Rent. At that age, he had “enthusiasm and pure intention,” character traits he lost as he grew older. “We all fall short,” he said. “Your intention will stand in the gap of your shortfall.”
When Miranda offered him the role of Burr, Odom said he was initially daunted. After developing Hamilton over the span of two years, the troupe gave a few early performances to small groups of powerful agents and producers.
“I got over my nerves by identifying a pure intention,” he said. “The piece was already so dear to me, it felt like an old friend. And I said, how do you introduce an old friend to a room full of strangers? That’s what I wanted to do with this show.”
In closing, Odom relayed his belief that parents only get to teach their kids five things by the time they turn 18.
“I don’t have all five, but I think I’ve got three,” he said.
“The first one is, I am enough,” he said, adding that little moments of not knowing he was enough landed him in trouble in his own life. “The second thing ...you can have a really good life if you know how to make and keep a friend.”
“The third and last thing is that I want them to know that the only thing that they will ever be ashamed of, really, is any moment of unkindness,” he said.
“Thanks for listening to my story,” he said. “Now give yourselves a round of applause.”