Hobart and William Smith Colleges - From the Crucible of the Pandemic: Oxygen, Purpose and a “Weird” Commencement for the Classes of 2020
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From the Crucible of the Pandemic: Oxygen, Purpose and a “Weird” Commencement for the Classes of 2020

A year after graduating, the Classes of 2020 returned to campus to celebrate their Commencement in person.

Like the Greatest Generation, the Classes of 2020 have been “formed and forged in a crucible of hardship,” as the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry ’75, D.D. ’20 told graduates in his Commencement address. Curry, the Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, said: “Part of your most important formation as human beings has happened in the crucible not of a Great Depression, but of a great pandemic.”

After a year delay due to COVID-19, 2020 graduates gathered on campus for the weekend to celebrate, culminating in the ceremony on Sunday.

In his speech, Curry recalled his father telling him as a child: “The Lord didn’t put us here just to consume oxygen.” That line became a rhetorical touchstone and reminder to graduates, as Curry reflected on the ways hardship and sacrifice reveal what is important.

Following the murder of George Floyd last year, Curry saw something from young protesters that he had not seen before. He described: “a rising up of a generation of young people, and more than that, they were the most multiethnic, multiracial, pluralistic, rainbow children of God that America has ever seen. And they — you — rose up and called on America: America, be America. Stand up for liberty and justice. America, be America: one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice, not just for some, but justice for all. America, be America. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all people are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, not by vote of Congress, not by vote of parliament, not by a priest, pope, potentate or preacher, but endowed by the creator with an unalienable right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. America, be that…then you’ll be a shining city on the hill.”

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church offers an address to the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Classes of 2020. Watch the address here.

The Most Rev. Michael B. Curry ’75, D.D. ’20, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church offers an address to the Hobart and William Smith Colleges Classes of 2020. Watch the address here.

In these purpose-driven young people, who “showed us hope again” and “reminded us of faith again,” Curry recognized what his father meant when he said, “The Lord didn’t put us here just to consume the oxygen.”

Curry said: “This is not a sermon, but if it was the prophet Micah might say it this way: What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God? Jesus of Nazareth said it this way: The supreme law of God in the highest end of humanity is to love the Lord your God and to love your neighbor as yourself. Doing that, we will figure out how to take the jangling discord of our nation, as Dr. King said, and create a beautiful symphony of God’s wonders and humanity.”

During the Commencement ceremony, Curry was awarded an honorary doctorate in recognition of his remarkable life and career, defined by an “energetic, inspirational ministry of love that has touched the lives of millions of people around the world,” as President Joyce P. Jacobsen said while conferring the degree.

[View more information on Commencement 2020 here.]

Sunday’s ceremony celebrated the 195th graduating class of Hobart College and the 109th of William Smith College, with 308 members of the Classes of 2020 returning to campus for Commencement. The Colleges conferred a total of 464 bachelor’s degrees and eight master’s degrees in 2020, as well as two College Experience Certificates through the HWS and ARC partnership program.

HWS also awarded honorary degrees to Margaret “Peggy” Bokan Greenawalt ’66, L.H.D. ’20 a philanthropist and advocate for increased female leadership; and G. Peter Jemison L.H.D. ’20, an artist, activist and Historic Site Manager of Ganondagan State Historic Site.

In her valedictory address, President Jacobsen offered a meditation on the “weird”-ness of the past year, particularly for the Classes of 2020, who left HWS for “a world that was locked down and socially distanced, that was gripped by social and political unrest, that was obsessed with rules and rule-following and rule-not-following.”

But there were “other weird things” — like the solidarity that emerged during the pandemic — that conjured for Jacobsen “a world in which even more weird, strange, bizarre and fateful things could happen.”

“If weird can lead to good, then let’s continue to be weird,” she said. “Be at one with your weirdness, and the weird collectivity of what we have all been through. Let that feed your compassion for others, who experienced their pains and losses, just as you experienced yours…Above all, keep alive your love of learning, your lifelong quest for knowledge, your self-education and your others-education…Be the geeky person who wants to know more. Be the weirdo who cares about ideals, who doesn’t give up on your own goals and ideals and helps others to reach theirs.”

Student speakers Gavin Flood ’20 and Gianna Gonzalez ’20 reflected on their fond memories as students and the personal and intellectual growth they found at HWS.

“We have witnessed change on our campus, in the Geneva community, in our country, and in our world. Yet, having grown and lived with you for almost a quarter of my life, one thing remains certain to me: to use the words of the decade: we are the classes of resilience and strength,” Flood said. “If there have been any benefits from the past pandemic year and the previous four years together, it is the buildup of strength and courage amidst these changes that will carry us through.”

In her speech, Gonzalez recounted the milestones at HWS that she and her classmates shared — first-year seminars, meeting new friends, studying abroad and the disappointment at the start of the pandemic. “But I feel so lucky to have all of you here today, a year later, to show what the Classes of 2020 are all about,” she said. “This is what I love about HWS and our class. There are so many of us here to show our love for HWS and Geneva. Even if we didn’t really know each other, or speak that often, we most likely all have a memory with almost everyone here.”

During the Commencement ceremony, Craig R. Stine ’81, P’17, chair of the Board of Trustees, presented the annual Touching the Future awards, which celebrate and honor educators from elementary, middle and high school who have had an impact on current HWS graduates. This year, the Colleges recognized: Brandy Alexander, a teacher and athletics director at Robert F. Kennedy Community Schools: NOW Academy in Los Angeles, Calif., nominated by Valerie Cuellar ’20; and George Rooney, the varsity bowling coach at South Burlington High School in South Burlington, Vt., and a driver education instructor at Middlebury Union High School in Middlebury, Vt., nominated by Hugh “Nick” Mckenny ’20.