Ohio State celebrates largest-ever graduating class with historic virtual commencement
Thousands watch online and on television to honor the class of 2020
Inside an empty Ohio Stadium and homes across Buckeye Nation, friends and family of nearly 13,000 graduates celebrated a virtual commencement for The Ohio State University class of 2020.
It was a unique celebration, a safe ceremony during a deadly pandemic. The university’s swift response to COVID-19 included planning a virtual ceremony when restrictions on large gatherings made an in-person celebration impossible.
“It is an honor and a privilege to share this time with you and your families and friends. We are not here together. We wanted to recognize your incredible accomplishments, nevertheless, on this day,” said President Michael V. Drake. “These are extraordinary times that have affected everything in our lives, including the way you completed your journey at Ohio State. We’ll celebrate today, and then look forward to a future joyous celebration when we are able to come back together in the ’Shoe.”
The program inside the stadium included Drake and a small number of university officials in traditional commencement regalia. Graduates filled social media with photos in their caps and gowns from remote locations around the nation, congregating under the #OSUGrad hashtag.
It was livestreamed and broadcast on WOSU TV and The Ohio Channel as well as Reuters, ABC Digital and local Ohio stations. The livestream alone attracted 86,000 viewers. More than 6,000 households watched on WOSU.
The university awarded a record 12,967 degrees and certificates to its largest-ever graduating class.
“It must be acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken many things away from us over the past several weeks,” said Vice President for Student Life Melissa Shivers as she opened the ceremony. “But what can never be taken away from you, from your families, from your loved ones, from your friends, is the immense pride I hope that you all feel in this moment, and for the rest of your days.”
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivered the commencement address via a video in his office. He celebrated the resilience of this class and called on graduates to rise to this new challenge.
“When our glittering plans are scrambled, as they often will be, and our dearest hopes were dashed, as will sometimes happen, we’re left with a choice. We can curse the loss of something that was never going to be or we can see reasons to be grateful for the yank on the scruff of the neck and in having our eyes lifted up from the story we were writing for ourselves and turn instead to a remade world,” he said.
“You weren’t promised this day. Many of you had to fight hard to earn it. Now it’s yours. Think anew, act anew, build a better future than the one you thought was certain. And in a fearful time, call us once again to hope.”
Kate Greer, the 2019-20 president of Undergraduate Student Government, spoke to the unique ways students were celebrating their graduation.
“I still plan on celebrating today – on FaceTime with my friends, on Zoom with my family, having happy hour. I hope, despite the physical distance between us all, that you are still celebrating yourself, because these past few weeks can never take away how hard you worked and everything you sacrificed to get to this moment,” she said.
Greer wasn’t alone. Seniors were using this week to celebrate with family and look back on their time at Ohio State. They were also looking ahead to careers boosted by the time and connections they made while on campus.
Wenjing Deng was one of those graduates. Deng moved to Columbus from Toronto to join the synchronized swimming team and received both her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering today.
Deng said her high school graduation was canceled by a teacher’s strike, so this unconventional commencement was an unusual coincidence. While she was sad she was unable to finish her final semester with her classmates in person, she said she felt prepared for the future because of her time at Ohio State.
“I think it was the students and the energy I felt on campus that was something that set Ohio State apart from a lot of the other schools that I was looking at in Canada,” she said. “I’m so happy I came to Ohio State. It’s been awesome and I feel like there is no school that can give you this kind of experience.”
Deng is headed to Cleveland to work for an automation company, where she will help design and build robots.
George Valcarcel, an industrial and systems engineering graduate, watched the virtual ceremony from his home in Mason. Valcarcel chose Ohio State over Ivy League opportunities in part because of the university’s Integrated Business and Engineering program and the networks he could build in Columbus.
“So the whole analogy, what I was sold on to come to Ohio State, was you could be a big fish in a big pond by being a part of a selective honors program like IBE and by bridging these different networks together. I absolutely thrived on that,” he said. “Ohio State is a nice microcosm for the real world. I’ve been able to really develop my network in aerospace, defense and innovation within the Columbus community. That’s because Ohio State is kind of central to all of these areas.”
Valcarcel already has a job as a business analyst for McKinsey & Company in Chicago.
During the ceremony, the university awarded the honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree, in absentia, to Cook, and conferred Distinguished Service Awards in absentia to Philip T.K. Daniel, the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher Professor of Education Administration (emeritus); E. Christopher Ellison, the Robert M. Zollinger Professor Emeritus in the College of Medicine; and Timothy Gerber, professor emeritus of music.
Drake noted that today’s ceremony is expected to be his final commencement as Ohio State’s president. He quoted a favored poem by Rabindranath Tagore about the call to service, and asked students to answer that same call.
“I slept and dreamt that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was service. I acted, and behold, service was joy,” he said. “Serving at The Ohio State University has been a blessing and a privilege. Serving at The Ohio State University has been a joy.”
Graduates will receive their degrees and a copy of the commencement program in the mail at their permanent address. The university will hold a physical recognition event at a later date when it is safe to do so. Members of the Class of 2020 will be actively involved in the scheduling and planning of that event.