University of Connecticut
Virtual Commencement Ceremony
May 9, 2020
President, University of Connecticut
Greetings to the Class of 2020, and welcome to the first virtual commencement in the history of the University of Connecticut. I know this is not the ceremony you had in mind when you started your studies at UConn some time ago, but it doesn’t reduce the significance of this day in your life or the importance of what you have achieved. You deserve to be celebrated for all you’ve accomplished and it’s our intent to do exactly that today and again, in person in regalia in October if possible.
So with that, let me say, live from the storied Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs, Connecticut, it’s the UConn 2020 Commencement Ceremony! And it’s Saturday night. Well, not quite, but close. I want to thank everyone who made this special event possible. I’d like to recognize an awesome special events team, our crack IT and communications team, the Jorgensen theater staff, and our marshals. I want to especially acknowledge the parents, family, friends, and supporters who may be joining you in your watch parties. If you would, please join me in giving them a round of applause for the support they have given you in getting to this point in your lives.
Congratulations. A shout out to Greta Smith and her friends who are watching this commencement ceremony in full regalia at their watch party and to anyone else who is watching in full regalia, kudos to all of you, and hello to Max and Alex.
And now if you are watching with a graduate, would you please join me by applauding them as I salute the graduates of the Class of 2020 from all of our campuses: Avery Point, Farmington, Hartford, Law, Stamford, Storrs, and Waterbury.
Congratulations graduates! I tip my cap to you.
We all talk about commencement being a family affair. For at least one family today, that takes on extra meaning. For the Shafers, both father and son are graduating today; son Jeff with a Bachelor of Science from the Business School, and father Ted with a Master’s in Public Administration from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, while serving as First Selectman of Burlington. Congratulations, father and son.
The eternal problem for a president preparing for a commencement ceremony is finding ways to make it unique and memorable, to avoid clichés like this is a beginning rather than an ending and weak jokes about speeches that run too long. How does a president communicate that this year’s class is something special to be remembered for the rest of our lives? How does a president make sure the Class of 2020’s celebration, that the iconic image of the ceremony, doesn’t simply blend into the hundreds that come before and after? Well, this year, I don’t have that problem.
But I wouldn’t have anyway. Because this class is something special. And that’s something I realized right away when I met with many of you in my first days as President designate.
Even in a normal year I would have said to you, I’ll always remember you as my first graduating class. Even in a normal year I would have said to you that I consider it a sign of our mutual success that you are moving on and I am not!
Even in a normal year I would have said to you, you are special and I will always remember this class.
Rather than focus on the obvious physical distance between us and the differences between this ceremony and others, I’d rather talk about how connected you have been to each other for these past years, on all we have experienced together, in person and remotely, and to enjoy the bittersweet emotion that is universal with all UConn graduations as you say goodbye to life as a student and begin life as an alum. What is universal is the sweetness in the lifelong friendships you’ve forged, in the memories you’ve made, and in the lofty title of UConn Husky that each and every one of you has earned and will keep forever.
I know that your memories of your time at UConn will include the incredible global ordeal of the past months. But over time, and not much time I predict, you will look back on your years here and remember them for the things you cherish about being a student here: Perhaps it was the chance to play Oozeball, perhaps it was sunbathing on the Great Lawn, a sailing class at Avery Point. Or the morning ritual of a cup of coffee on the way to class; gathering at the Dairy Bar with friends for the world’s best ice cream; perhaps cheering on our Husky teams and our performers and artists. And, of course, the long nights spent cramming in the Library, deeper into the basement the more dire the situation.
I know that a million wonderful, everyday things that made up life at the university will re‑emerge in your memory with all their familiar vibrancy.
So let’s take a few moments to reflect on some highlights of thisgraduating class. First and foremost this is the largest, most academically successful and most diverse graduating class in the history of the University of Connecticut. Congratulations to all of you for that. There are 6,335 graduates today with bachelor’s degrees. There are 1,877 of you graduating with master’s degrees. 605 with doctorates, 358 international students from 15 countries, 40 percent of the graduating class is from underrepresented groups and 1,883 are first generation college students. The youngest student receiving a degree today, 19 years old. The oldest, 76. Congratulations young and old, one and all. Give yourselves a big hand, wherever you are.
Here are some other highlights during your time here, that you experienced.
The women’s basketball team notched its historic 111th consecutive victory. And how exciting was it to cheer on the resurgent Men’s basketball team? I have to quote graduating senior here, Christian Vital, and I’m paraphrasing a little bit: we were only a couple of more games away from qualifying for the NCAA tournament. And Christian, the way you and your teammates were playing, I believe you!
And we experienced the most successful Huskython ever, raising more than a million dollars. And how moving was it to me to watch the cutting off of the wrist bands ceremony after 18 hours of dancing and sweat in Greer Fieldhouse. From my own perspective, even though I was not here for the full length of your journey here at UConn, I understood immediately that this was a special class. What has impressed me above all about the Class of 2020 is your motivating passion for taking on the grand challenges of the world. Indeed, it was downright impossible to overlook that at times, like my first month as president when over 400 of you marched on my office demanding action on global climate challenge and then sat down to work with me on a common goal. That was something I truly valued, and I value the commitment you’ve shown to so many other issues, from confronting racism to supporting the mental health of your fellow students.
Another thing that stands out for me is the number of your peers in the underclasses who have told me repeatedly that they look up to you as mentors and role models. And they should. Just look at some of the extraordinary Huskies receiving degrees today:
I’m thinking of seniors like Ariane Garrett, whose list of scholarships is a roll call of achievement: Goldwater Scholar, Holster Scholar, University Scholar, Honors Scholar, National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow. And students like Fulbright Finalists Megan Go and Emmalyn Lecky.
Of course, UConn’s first‑ever Rhodes Scholar, Wawa Gatheru, whom you’ll hear from in just a few moments.
But I am also thinking about people like Jess Gagnon, who spearheaded UConnPIRG’s voter registration drive;
Derek Pan, a pre‑med major who founded Huskies for Haiti;
Student activists like Nathalie Hernandez and Katherine “Kat” Morris, extraordinary leaders.
Entrepreneurs like Elizabeth Perry who created the Social Responsibility Case Competition and Noah Pacik‑Nelson who was lead engineer in a startup company, making emergency ventilators.
I am thinking about our international students like Ivan Zhang, Events Director for UCTV.
And I am thinking about Daily Campus editor‑in‑chief Anna Zara Aldrich,
Gender equity advocate Kelly Flannery, and Priyanka Thakkar and the graduating leadership of USG who I have so enjoyed working with and have so inspired me, and who have left this university better for generations of students to come.
I wish I had time to list every single outstanding member of this class, but I’ll stop there, knowing that if I run too long, it is a lot easier for you to close your laptop than it is to leave an auditorium
So let me sum up by saying, I could not be more grateful for such a talented and dedicated and world‑changing class, and I am very proud of you, Class of 2020!
I’m hardly alone in my pride at your accomplishments. Two people, whom you know well, have recorded messages of congratulations and encouragement, along with two of your peers who will be reflecting on what today means to them and to you.
So, let’s now turn our attention to Governor Ned Lamont, Wawa Gatheru, Jamie Gooch, and Coach Geno Auriemma.
The Honorable Ned Lamont
Governor of Connecticut
Congratulations to the UConn Class of 2020.
Okay, I get it. This is not exactly the commencement ceremony you anticipated, nor your parents. You thought you’d probably be walking through Gampel Pavilion and collecting the sheepskin. But it is a graduation you will never forget. And you will never forget the amazing things you did at UConn. And I guarantee you whenever you get back together with your friends, whenever you come back for a reunion, you will pick up right where you left off.
This is an incredibly unique time, and that’s one reason you will never forget this graduation. There are only a certain number of pivot moments in our history, and this is one of them right now. Everything will be different after COVID. I think you know what it’s meant for this spring term where you’ve been e‑Learning, learning online, and I think you are going to remember that learning doesn’t stop at graduation, but it continues on going forward. I think when it comes to health, we’re going to realize that health is not simply going to the doctor. It’s telehealth. It’s public health. It’s the environment. I think you’re going to think about those in a very different way. I think we learned a lot about telecommuting. I know I have. You know, maybe up until six months ago you thought you had to be in a big city to get that interesting job. Now you realize you can have an interesting job in that big city, but you don’t have to necessarily live there. And I think that’s going to change the way we think about life.
And I want you to think as you graduate and go forward, hindsight is 20/20, but you also have an opportunity to look forward. See how the world has changed because of COVID and see how you can make the world a better place. That’s why we invested in you, invested in UConn, invested in everything you’re going to get done there going forward. God bless you all, congratulations, class of 2020.
Wanjiku “Wawa” Gatheru ’20
College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources
Good morning Class of 2020 and welcome to our virtual commencement. I’m so honored to be able to be here today to provide some short remarks on a day that looks and feels very differently than what we all had imagined. Like many of you, I had spent countless days and moments dreaming about what my senior year would look like, and with whom I’d experience the bittersweet lasts of what Storrs, Connecticut, has to offer. I didn’t know what it would all entail, but I did vow that it would be a senior year to remember.
Looking back I couldn’t have known that the culmination of all those daydreams would give me exactly what I’d asked for: a truly unforgettable senior year and a lifelong reminder to always be careful what you wish for.
Class of 2020, I think we can all agree when I say this: we have never known a perfect world. Many of us grew up on the heels of 9/11, learned our ABCs against the backdrop of Hurricane Katrina and other natural disasters, and watched as their parents and loved ones fought to stay afloat during the 2008 financial crisis. Many of us are the first in our families to be in this country, the first to attend college, and many of us have had to fight tooth and nail to go to an institution like this and to navigate an institution that hasn’t always felt like home. Yet in the midst of what feels like a generational freefall, there has been a truth that has remained constant. While we have never known a perfect world, we never needed a guarantee of success to try to strive for it.
When I look for inspiration, especially in this moment, I look no further than our class itself. In our class there are scientists, visionaries, entrepreneurs, and current and future leaders. We are the future, and I’m certain of this.
Now I know that right now is incredibly uncertain. We find ourselves in the midst of a once in a century pandemic. But there is hope because the language of progress that we seek in this moment does exist. This pandemic has presented itself as an existential threat, but it is not our first. The future has not always been certain.
As we strive to formulate a language of change and progress, let us take refuge in the words left behind for us by the great social movements and leaders of our time and the times before us. Dr. King once said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.” It is with these words that I believe King offers us all a fundamental challenge to carry with us wherever we go, the challenge to lead with a deep love. To respond to instances of crisis and frustration with the love that doesn’t seek vengeance but instead justice. In this challenge I believe that we must speak our truths, hold ourselves and others accountable, and carry the values that make us all proud Huskies.
So to the class of 2020 — or as we now call it, “the COVID class,” — let’s accept this challenge and continue to have the audacity to strive for a world that is worthy for all of us.
Jamie Gooch ’11 MS, Dec. ’19 DNP
School of Nursing
Hello. I’m Dr. Jamie Gooch, a former graduate student, a current nurse, and a member of the faculty of the School of Nursing. I’m very proud to be here today with you to celebrate our shared accomplishments.
We may have never met before, but your achievement tells me a lot about who you are. I know you wanted more. I know you value the power that comes with knowledge, reason, and truth. I know you set a course down a path, that, although at times bumpy and winding, you traveled tirelessly. You committed to the journey, and you arrived here today. This is a true accomplishment, and one for which you should be very, very proud indeed.
Today, you join a company of heroes. I am proud that in 2020, the “Year of the Nurse,” that the global spotlight has fallen upon my colleagues. But this is a moment of human challenge that will alter the foundations of society. In the years to come, we will all be called upon to remake this world. In the nation to come, heroes will not wear capes: They’ll wear tassels.
You have arrived just in time!
You are exceptional and it turns out that you’re in good company. The entire UConn community is full of scholar heroes, all armed with lessons learned from years of hard work and study and dedication to our fields, ready to use that expertise to go out into our communities and to give the help that’s so desperately needed right now.
Until this moment you may not have thought of yourself as a hero. It can be easy to look at others and see the hero in them. We see the ER doctor who hasn’t seen her family in weeks. We think of the medic who is losing his colleagues and yet rides every single day. We see students and faculty from the School of Nursing and the School of Medicine on the front lines every day caring, advocating, and helping the sickest among us even when they put their own health at risk. That heroism of the moment is quickly being joined by a herculean effort to reimagine and recreate: Students and faculty from the School of Engineering are innovating new methods of creating ventilators – we need them now more than ever.
From today, the tassel that you wear upon your head marks you the hero we need right now. Whether you’re a graduate from the School of Education, ready to go and help the thousands of children sitting at home waiting for their lessons, or a graduate from the School of Business who lays awake at night dreaming of new methods, new pathways of commerce and innovation to get our economy back on track, you’re a hero. Across this screen from me sit heroes from the School of Social Work, ready to guide the most vulnerable of us toward desperately needed help in this uncertain time. Heroes from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, along with Schools of Pharmacy and Medicine, are working tirelessly to discover new ways to treat this disease. We hunger for the light of insight and hope from the School of Fine Arts to align our ambition, to showcase our joy and sorrow, and to elevate our works and lives.
Every discipline in this great public institution will be called upon; every school sends you out today, to help.
We are a community of scholar heroes, and the world needs us. We each have the potential to rise to the challenge to be heroic in the lives of someone else. It’s a scary time to be leaving the UConn community. And I know that the path forward may not always seem so clear. But I remind you that you have traveled an uncertain path before and arrived victoriously. You are the scholar hero that our country needs right now, and you have the tassel to prove it!
Many congratulations on your accomplishment!
I wish you health, and luck, and success. The world depends on us.
Coach, UConn Women’s Basketball
Hi, this is Geno Auriemma. I’m the coach of University of Connecticut women’s basketball team.
So for the class of 2020, I’m supposed to deliver a message. But you’ve already gotten some messages, I’m sure. About how you’re going to change the world. About how the other generations before you were impactful and how you’re going to do great things. All the things that people say at graduation speeches. So this is really not a graduation speech, really. This is something that I would say if you were here standing right in front of me. This is stuff that I say to my players, my kids, right? And here’s what, here’s what I would say: This is your defining moment.
Each generation has a defining moment. That generation had the war. My generation had Vietnam. Then another generation had 9/11, if you want to call that a “generational thing,” which, I’m sure for a lot of people, it was. Now, this is your time. This will define your generation. This is you now.
Everybody’s looking for answers. Maybe you get to provide the answers. Maybe somebody in this class comes up with the answers so these things that are happening now won’t happen again. Doubtful, but if they do happen, someone in this group that I’m talking to is responsible for finding the answers, handling those kinds of problems that are definitely going to come.
This will be your defining moment that you’ll tell your kids and your grandkids, “Hey you’re not going to believe this, I missed my graduation.” “Why?” “Oh, let me tell you …” And then you’ll be able to tell them this is what I did during that time. What’d I do? I sat home in my pajamas. Or what? I started to figure things out; what can I do to make it better. For who? Me? No, you can’t make it better for you, not necessarily, unless you work out more, take piano lessons, learn how to play chess. No, you’re going to end up making it better for the other people that depend on you or that you depend on.
I’m going to read something to you to wrap this up. I got this from one of my players. She’s not even a player yet; she’s coming to school here next year, so that means she’s a senior in high school. It’s not that far removed from you guys. I’m going to give it to you right now. Because I had posed the question to her that somebody said, you know, you got to tone it down with today’s kids because they were, you know, they’re not able to handle some of the things that basketball coaches do, teachers do, parents do, whatever the case may be. Here’s what she said: “I feel like today we always hear stories about how our grandparents and even our parents had a harder life than us, and I think in some way they want it to be better for us by providing us with the things they didn’t have growing up. Toning it down with today’s kids sounds like Coach Burrell and possibly other coaches and people around society feel that we are too soft because of how we were raised and the things” — listen now — “that make us comfortable that actually disable us.” This is a high school kid.
So, in a roundabout way, know what she’s saying? This is an uncomfortable time. These are uncomfortable things that have to be done right now. You are living in uncomfortable times, so in some sense you are living in the greatest time of your life. It’s great to be uncomfortable because that’s when you find out just how great you can really be.
So good luck; best wishes, best wishes; stay healthy; be a great teammate; and congratulations on being a University of Connecticut graduate of the class of 2020.
Thank you for those inspiring, eloquent and heroic remarks. Heroes wearing tassels and defining moments, it’s quite uplifting. I am pleased to let you know that the IT people tell me that there are 9,000 people plus watching with all of you so thank you for tuning in. Well, now it’s time for the main event, the conferral of degrees and it’s my honor to introduce the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Mr. Daniel Toscano.
Chairman, UConn Board of Trustees
Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you, President Katsouleas. I am now violating the rule, never follow Geno. So, I’m just going to pack up and go home right now. What an uplifting message from not only Coach Auriemma but the other speakers as well. I promise I won’t be as eloquent or have as impactful a message as the three of those did.
I would like to add my welcome to everyone today to our most unusual celebration. I hope the day finds you and your loved ones safe and in good health. And I would like to offer special recognition to all the moms out there. One good thing about our virtual graduation is that it doesn’t interfere with Mother’s Day as our in-person ceremonies often do. To all the moms out there, happy Mother’s Day. To all the graduates, you don’t get your diploma until you give your mom a hug and express your love and appreciation for all she’s done for you, and I confer the diplomas, so unless you do it, you’re not getting it.
There is an old saying that with experience comes wisdom. If that is to be believed, then you all added an enormous amount of wisdom this past semester. What you learned in your academic pursuits was rivaled by the exposure to how unpredictable life can be and to how valuable versatility and resilience can be. And it might not feel like it in the moment, but surviving this crisis will make you stronger and prepare you for the unpredictable world that we live in.
While I don’t know exactly what it is like to be in your shoes, I do know what it’s like to graduate from this great University into uncertainty. I was a finance major set to graduate in 1987. My plans to head straight to an analyst program on Wall Street were interrupted by the stock market crash late in the year. In just three days, the S&P 500 lost almost 30 percent of its value, something we saw just repeat itself last month. Just weeks before graduating, the program was canceled and the job offer I had prized the most disappeared, just like that. With no job, no cushion, no money in the bank I had to figure it out. My prospects seemed bleak. But what kept me going was the belief that if I wanted success badly enough and I was willing to work as hard as it took, I would find my way. And I did. It took some time, and I had my doubts at times, but I never lost hope. The confidence that I built during my time on this campus carried me through. You can do it too. You will do it too!
I guess what this pandemic has taught us all, is this graduation ceremony isn’t important on its own. It is the journey that got you here that is the most important.
It is this journey that will stay with you for the rest of your life. It is this journey that has prepared you for whatever comes next. And it is those who took the journey with you that you will cherish forever.
By the way, if you don’t feel fully prepared for what comes next, you are in fine company. Welcome to the club! You are just like everyone else, except Geno of course. He is always fully prepared. You aren’t fully prepared; you can’t be. But you do have the foundation to survive and to thrive. To throw out the playbook. To call the audible. To figure it out. There is a time to think and there is a time to act. You have the skills to do both. It was Nelson Mandela who said, “Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by how many times I fell down and got back up again.”
You will get all kinds of messages today. Messages of congratulations, messages of sympathy for not having a traditional graduation ceremony. Messages from family, friends, classmates, boyfriends, girlfriends, teammates, and so on. Take a moment to deliver a message back, back to those people who are partly responsible for you being who you are and being where you are today. You didn’t get here on your own. This is your day, but the way to make the day fully satisfying is to remember to share it with those who deserve credit for an assist.
When you leave this ceremony today, please remember to take with you the confidence that you developed as a valuable byproduct of your experience here. It was hard fought. Please do not leave it behind like the Civil Conflict trophy.
Before I confer upon you your impressive degrees, I would first like to deliver your lifetime membership to UConn Nation. This membership comes without additional cost, until you see the joy of giving back to the worthy students who will follow you, and it comes without condition. You can use it anytime and in many different ways. All I’d like you to do is to help maintain it and maybe try to make it better than you found it. It can help you in so many ways throughout your life. It will bring you joy and it will embrace you. Your time as a student might be drawing to a close today, but you are a Husky for life. Our beautiful campuses will always be your home. I imagine most universities say this, but I want to use my own experience to implore you to stay connected to UConn. The opportunity to engage with young people and alums alike, the opportunity to give back, the opportunity to be part of the great academic and scientific advancements taking place across our campuses, the opportunity to get to know and to root for our student athletes in their quest for success. There is nowhere else that you can find the satisfaction, the fulfillment, the joy that accompanies maintaining an active relationship with UConn. I speak from experience on this topic. It is not an obligation, it is an opportunity.
With that all said, now for the official part:
By virtue of the authority vested in me by the Governor of the State of Connecticut and in accordance with the procedures and regulations of the University of Connecticut I confer upon you the Associate’s Degree, the appropriate Bachelor’s Degree, the Master’s Degree, the Sixth Year Diploma, the degree of Doctor, the degrees of Law, Medicine, and Dental Medicine which you have completed requirements for during this 140th Commencement of the University of Connecticut. Congratulations to the Class of 2020.
Class of 2020, it’s time to turn your tassels from right to left, over your heart, to always remember your alma mater.
Congratulations, you’re now UConn alumni.
As Chairman Toscano said, this is your day and your university and we mean that. Students today, Huskies forever is not just a slogan, it’s a promise that no matter where you go in the world, no matter where your talents and passions take you, you will always have a home here at the University of Connecticut. You’ll always be welcome. I look forward to following your progress and I expect to see you back here again soon, in person.
And now, it is my great pleasure and honor to present the University of Connecticut Class of 2020. The names of all graduates will now scroll across your screen, alphabetically and by school and degree.