class of 2020 seniors celebrating
Members of the class of 2020 celebrate during their student-organized "fauxmencement" held in March.
Image credit: Macy Lipkin ’23

Wellesley College Celebrates the Class of 2020 in a Virtual Ceremony

June 1, 2020

The bells of Wellesley College’s carillon ring out from Galen Stone Tower in Green Hall, and aerial views of favorite campus landmarks like Alumnae Hall, Lulu, Lake Waban, and Tower Court come into view—on thousands of screens around the world.

On May 31, Wellesley College conferred the degrees of 569 members of the class of 2020 and celebrated its seniors in a virtual ceremony. Due to the pandemic, the College was unable to host in-person commencement exercises this year and plans to hold an in-person celebration next year.

Following an invocation from Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life Jacquelina Marquez, senior members of the Wellesley College Choir performed “To Alma Mater,” their voices and harmonies compiled from submitted videos from across the country.

Then Sam Churchill, class of 2020 student speaker, addressed her fellow seniors. “As lei after lei is placed around your neck, expectation after expectation is also rested on your shoulders. Each is an honor to carry with you, but a heavy weight when taken together,” she said. “You now have a degree from Wellesley College, and at least four years worth of people you love and admire telling you how you’re going to change the world some day.” In Churchill’s home state of Hawai’i, family members and friends traditionally drape leis over graduates.

“When you feel burdened by these expectations, know that a sibling’s role in this tradition is to hold the extra lei for you, when they have been stacked so high that you cannot see over the top…Because together, we are boundless. We have never been the type of class to go quietly,” Churchill said.

“You have all touched more lives than you realize...By being unapologetically yourselves—passionate, loud, nasty, but also compassionate, unsure, and vulnerable—you gave me the confidence to do the same,” Churchill said. “[You] taught me more about the world than I learned in any class. By embracing your own histories, you helped me to see that I didn’t have to build walls between where I am from and where I am going, but that I could build bridges.”

“Class of 2020, if I know anything, I know this: You are ready. More than ready for whatever comes next. The degrees you receive today are a testament to four years of hard work, discovery, growth, and challenge. For the rest of your life, they will open doors to a future you can’t yet imagine; to new opportunities and new friendships, new ideas, and new options,” President Paula Johnson said in her remarks to the class, pre-recorded from a podium in Alumnae Hall.

“You have worked hard to equip yourselves to make a difference in the world. Now you must answer this question: What kind of difference will you make? You will have no shortage of options,” Johnson continued. “The pandemic has shone a harsh light on some of the world’s most urgent problems. The widening chasm between rich and poor, the displacement of science by special interests and viral disinformation. The ways that race and gender limit options and threaten life itself.”

Johnson referenced the recent death of a young alumna, Rana Zoe Mungin ’11, from COVID-19, which she wrote about in a CNN op-ed that ran on May 31 as well. “Did the fact that she was a young black woman affect her quality of care? While we may never know for sure, it seems all too likely. Each of you has a role to play in tackling this kind of injustice. This is true for every graduating class, but especially for yours,” she said.

After Johnson’s remarks, she and Provost and Lia Gelin Poorvu ’56 Dean of the College Andrew Shennan formally conferred the degrees of the graduates, and all their names were shown on the screen. (The reading of graduates’ names aloud will be part of the in-person celebration next year.)

Following the degree conferral, members of the Senior Class Council revealed the class of 2020’s commencement speaker: Robin Chase ’80, co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, and a transportation innovator.

“Now, we are all entrepreneurs,” Chase said to the class. “We move forward with wholly inadequate resources, but bolstered by our friendships, tenacity, and creativity.”

“The most important aspect of this very moment, so shattered and broken, is that it gives us the opportunity to tell a new story about who we are, and who we can be. You all get to, and must, have a hand in that reshaping. From small important moments like voting—make sure to vote in each and every upcoming election in your lifetime—to large ones, building and shaping the new world we want, one that is more sustainable and equitable, just and joyful,” Chase said. She plans to return to campus next year to deliver her full address to the class.

Because the Senior Class Council wanted their classmates to be able to come together as a community as part of the celebration, the College created a website for seniors where they could upload photos, share their accomplishments and awards, and send messages to the faculty, staff, and fellow students who supported them on their journey; over 500 students submitted content. 

“While this is certainly not how we envisioned our senior week or our commencement, we hope that this virtual celebration on the class of 2020 website brings some comfort to you and your families,” said Zoe Wiles, vice president of the council. “Thank you to all those who helped plan this virtual celebration. This would not have been possible without you. I’d also like to express my profound gratitude to the other four members of Class Council. I have seen these students here work tirelessly planning a senior week I know all of you would have been proud of, and then at the drop of a hat, make the best out of this unimaginable situation.”

The ceremony concluded with video messages of love, congratulations, and appreciation for the seniors from members of the Wellesley community—faculty, staff, and alumnae, including former Secretary of State Madeleine Korbel Albright ’59. And there was one last surprise in store: a message from Hillary Rodham Clinton ’69, former Secretary of State and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee. Via video, Clinton shared her wishes and advice for the class of 2020.

“You know, fear is always with us, but we just don’t have time for it. Not now. And over the last 50 years, I’ve seen just about every response to fear that a person can have. And what I’ve learned is we always have a choice. Fear can paralyze us, or mobilize us,” she said. “Hold on to what you’ve learned during this challenging period, and keep doing what brings you joy....Keep your eye on what is important to you. And you can always do, as everybody I know can, with a little more kindness and compassion.”

Watch the full senior celebration here.