The Lawrence University community gathered virtually on Sunday for a Commencement celebration unlike any other in the school’s 171-year history.
Held online due to the COVID-19 pandemic that moved Spring Term classes to distance learning, the ceremony celebrated the accomplishments of nearly 270 Lawrentians in the Class of 2020.
“We are at a time like no other, when both far too much—and not nearly enough—has changed,” President Mark Burstein told the graduates and their families, all looking in from locations around the world.
Watch the 2020 Lawrence University Commencement webcast in its entirety here.
Congratulatory messages from faculty and staff, shared via video and an online chat, were mixed with the traditional speeches and the conferring of degrees.
Commencement speaker Natasha Trethewey, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose book, Native Guard, has been on the Freshman Studies reading list at Lawrence for five years, implored the graduates to find inspiration in the arts as they make sense of a world that has changed mightily since they first stepped on campus four years ago.
Divisive politics, a pandemic the likes of which we haven’t seen in 100 years, and racial injustice protests that are shining new light on systematic inequalities have rocked the world. Find your voice, Trethewey urged the graduates. Seek inspiration in poetry, music, and other arts as a means to process and navigate these times.
“Art allows us the opportunity to reflect on the human condition, to see ourselves in others, evoking in us our noblest trait, the ability to empathize,” she said. “Art has always been a necessary part of our collective survival.”
Trethewey said she turned to poetry and other art in the aftermath of the murder of her mother, citing W.H. Auden’s poem, Musée des Beaux Arts, and Pieter Bruegel’s painting, Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, as being particularly enlightening.
“It was the first time I understood that art could speak to me intimately about my own experience, that the language of a poem or a painting could save me from the feeling of overwhelming isolation brought on by trauma and grief,” she said. “In the midst of my despair, I suddenly felt part of something communal—ancient and ongoing.”
Cling to such beacons as you set out to make your mark in the world, Trethewey said. This moment in time isn’t an easy one, but it’s one that is ripe for change. And with it comes a need for compassion and empathy, and this generation is positioned to embrace each other wholly like none before.
“We are in a moment of shared national and international mourning and we are reminded of what links us to every other human being on this planet: our mortality, our need for justice, shelter, sustenance, sanctuary, air to breathe,” Trethewey said.
Samantha Lizbeth Torres ’20, selected as the senior class speaker, asked her classmates not to lose sight of the great accomplishment of graduating from Lawrence despite the global pandemic short-circuiting their final term on campus, not allowing for proper good-byes and celebrations. As a first-generation college student, a daughter of immigrants, missing out on an in-person Commencement has been painful, she said.
“Like many of you, I am still grieving this loss. The act of physically walking across that stage to receive a hard-earned diploma is one of the pinnacle moments for first-generation families and our most marginalized students. Lawrence is not easy for us. It was never meant to be. But signing up for that challenge, whether that meant leaving home a mile away or a continent away, demonstrates the strength and audacity it took to make Lawrence your own. I implore you to recognize the sheer amount of work, dedication and heart you’ve poured into yourselves and this Lawrence community over the past four years. You may be tired, overworked, or even burnt out. Relish this moment and all you’ve accomplished. Recognize the sacrifices you and your families have made and remember the great joy you’ve experienced here.”
Torres, a Posse scholar from New York City, praised her classmates for raising their voices over the past four years on issues ranging from divisive politics and immigration to LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter protests.
“We followed in the steps of our ancestors and of the great Lawrentians who have paved the way for us to continue making Lawrence a safe haven for all identities to be embraced and celebrated,” she said.
Continue that work no matter where your journey takes you, she said. It’s a responsibility that comes with being a Lawrentian.
“When the world tries to dim your light, shine bright,” Torres said. “No matter what comes next, anxieties and all, shine your light as fiercely as you can.”
Burstein told the graduates that a virtual Commencement does not diminish in any way the celebration of their accomplishments. But he said he has agonized over the prospect of not celebrating in person, unable to shake the hands of each graduate as they cross the stage.
“Even harder,” he said, “is knowing that Lawrence graduates you today into a world more uncertain than many generations before you. As someone who graduated from college and graduate school in another moment of economic and societal stress, I have a sense of what you may feel as you face the future. I am confident saying that regardless of what happens next, I know you have all acquired the skills necessary to succeed in this increasingly complex world. Your future homes and workplaces will benefit from your passion and skill. Your leadership will strengthen the world in which we live.”