More than 135 members of the Lawrence University Class of 2020 are expected to return to campus on June 25 for an in-person Commencement, two years after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the ceremony to go virtual.
It’s expected to be an emotional weekend for the alumni who were one term away from completing their Lawrence journey when the global pandemic hit in March 2020, sending students, faculty, and staff home to finish the year virtually.
This special ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday in front of Main Hall is an opportunity to walk the stage and provide closure to what was a difficult end to their time as undergraduates. The weekend will include a slate of celebratory events, including a dinner and reception Saturday evening.
“The Class of 2020 will be celebrated in a way deserving of every Lawrentian who has done the work that brings them to their much-anticipated graduation day,” said Leila Ramagopal Pertl ’87, a music education instructor who helped organize the weekend events.
The class was celebrated in 2020 with a beautiful virtual ceremony that included a Commencement address from Natasha Trethewey, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet whose book, Native Guard, is on the First-Year Studies reading list, and Zoom shout-outs from faculty and staff across campus. But despite the effort that went into pulling off that virtual ceremony, it can’t fill the hole left by not having an in-person celebration amid classmates, family, and friends.
“Our students deserve to feel the inherent spiritual power within this ceremony; to own the walk through the doorway into a new dream, witnessed and acknowledged by peers and elders, and confirmed by community leaders,” Ramagopal Pertl said.
Samantha Lizbeth Torres ’20, who served as senior class speaker in the 2020 virtual ceremony, will return to address her classmates at Saturday’s Commencement. It’s a moment that’s been a long time coming, wrapped around the emotions and anxieties of a pandemic, social unrest, and political divisiveness.
"It's difficult to imagine the cost of what was truly lost in 2020,” Torres said. “With tragedies compounding, it was easy to feel like our losses weren't as important as others. My class's grief was continuously eclipsed by the state of the world—and we know that our losses were not limited to just a missed in-person graduation. Even now, during one of the heaviest chapters of our lives, what congratulations would supplement the casualties of the past two years? While we may never get back what was lost, this weekend is a testament to our importance to our alma mater, and the value we brought during our time there. This is our moment to feel seen, physically, with a homecoming that emphasizes a validation of grief and a reminder of our resilience."
Members of the Class of 2020 were finishing up Winter Term of their senior year—preparing for spring break and then the stretch run toward graduation—when the spread of COVID-19 around the world suddenly became a reality. Hastily arranged senior events and tearful goodbyes filled those final days of the term, amid final exams and rapidly changing travel plans.
The events this weekend can’t reverse time, but they can help bring some closure. When the faculty process with the graduates onto Main Hall Green, it will be a message that those years at Lawrence mattered and will continue to matter.
“While the Class of 2020 was honored with an extraordinary virtual commencement, nothing can take the place of an in-person celebration,” said Matt Baumler, associate vice president of Alumni and Constituency Engagement. “Walking across the stage is an experience every graduate should have and every family member should witness. It’s a sign of great accomplishment and a celebration of new beginnings.”
Helen Boyd Kramer, a lecturer in gender studies, will deliver the commencement address. She has many ties to the Class of 2020, including serving as a Posse mentor that year. She is an activist, author, and educator and has written two books about gender identity, transgender issues, and her marriage to actor Rachel Crowl. In 2020, she was named a Champion of Pride by The Advocate for her local and national activism.
Ramagopal Pertl said the entirety of the Lawrence community has felt the weight of what this class endured as the world we knew unraveled.
“This class experienced a traumatic and sudden loss of their whole last term together,” she said. “They deserve to celebrate face to face, in their regalia, to hear their names out loud, and to walk. I am overjoyed that Lawrence has created a true graduation event that allows the class of 2020 to be immersed in and uplifted by this long-awaited rite of passage.”