There was a little less pomp than usual, but circumstance was hard to overlook.
On Saturday, May 9, the University of Connecticut held its first-ever “virtual” commencement, an innovative combination of a live ceremony held at the Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts and speeches taped in advance, as the COVID-19 pandemic made the massive gathering of a traditional commencement impossible.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, nearly 9,000 degrees were awarded: 6,335 bachelor’s degrees; 1,877 master’s degrees; and 605 doctoral degrees. The graduates included 1,883 first-generation college students, and more than 350 international students from 15 countries.
“The eternal problem for a president preparing for a commencement ceremony is finding ways to make it unique and memorable,” President Thomas Katsouleas said during his remarks, which streamed live on the University’s YouTube channel at 12:00 noon and remains on the site. “This year, I don’t have that problem,” he joked, indicating the empty venue and deserted stage.
As of Monday morning, the video of the ceremony had been viewed more than 34,000 times.
Katsouleas went on to say that he instantly recognized the Class of 2020 as special during his first year as UConn President, citing students’ commitment to social and political issues, acknowledged leadership on campus, and academic achievement.
“This is the largest, most academically successful, and most diverse graduating class in the history of the University of Connecticut,” he said. “Congratulations to all of you for that.”
While Katsouleas spoke live, he introduced prerecorded remarks that aired on the YouTube stream from Gov. Ned Lamont; Wawa Gatheru ’20 (CAHNR), the University’s first Rhodes Scholar; Jamie Gooch ’11 MS, Dec. ’19 DNP, a former graduate student who is now a nurse and member of the faculty of the School of Nursing; and Geno Auriemma, the head coach of the women’s basketball team who surely needs no introduction.
“You are living in uncomfortable times,” said Auriemma, in remarks that emphasized the importance of overcoming great challenges in life. “So in some sense, you are living in the greatest time of your life.”
Board of Trustees Chairman Daniel Toscano ’87 (BUS) also addressed graduates live from Jorgensen, formally conferring the nearly 9,000 degrees.
“It might not feel like it in the moment, but surviving this crisis will make you stronger and better prepared to face the unpredictable world that we live in,” Toscano said.
UConn held its first-ever graduation ceremony in 1883, two years after what was then called the Storrs Agricultural School opened its doors. The first graduating class had five members, and the ceremony was held in a grove of oak trees. In the intervening 137 years, UConn has conferred hundreds of thousands of degrees on students from every town in Connecticut as well as from faraway states and countries, with alumni going on to distinguish themselves as teachers, doctors, nurses, soldiers, sailors, Hall of Fame athletes, astronauts, artists, farmers, business leaders, police offices, firefighters, inventors, activists, writers, and countless other things, all firmly rooted in and informed by their experience at the University. Saturday’s improvised commencement was a commitment to maintaining that spirit of excellence, regardless of circumstances.
“‘Students Today, Huskies Forever’ is not just a slogan,” Katsouleas said Saturday. “It’s a promise that, no matter where you go in the world, no matter where your talents and passions take you, you’ll always have a home here at the University of Connecticut.”