A Commencement Unlike Any Other
The class of 2020 Commencement was one for the record books. Because of the pandemic, the traditional May gathering on the Middle College lawn was replaced by a virtual celebration. Graduates and their loved ones stayed home and watched a video that premiered on Beloit’s website on Sunday, May 17, at exactly the scheduled hour of 11 a.m.
The video retained a few signature elements of traditional graduation ceremonies—speeches, honors, and even the pealing of Eaton Chapel’s bells—but the genius of the 2020 event came from the graduates themselves. In some ways, 2020 was the ultimate DIY graduation, served up in inimitable Beloit style by the class members themselves.
Rather than crossing a stage, graduates had the opportunity to submit photos or a short video and to ask a mentor, friend, or family member to introduce them.
When the Senior Class Officers and President Scott Bierman announced in an email that the major part of Commencement would be a video stitched together from students’ submissions, they wrote: “We promise, this will allow you to feature a little bit of you as defined by you.”
And so it did.
The submissions reflected the creativity and resourcefulness of a class that’s endured unparalleled uncertainty and an extraordinary final half of a semester apart from their classmates.
In the video, they reinvented their Commencement walk by receiving a faux diploma from a parent, or even a dog, or by having a favorite professor introduce them. Many took the opportunity to thank professors, staff, and friends by name. One spelled “class of 2020” with Scrabble tiles using sideways Ns for the twos. Some announced their plans for graduate school. Another played the first few measures of Pomp and Circumstance on her cello. Cats and dogs, skateboards and bikes, and photos of graduates abroad all had their moment in the sun, and that made the event more personal than a formal graduation ever could have been.
President Bierman’s opening comments reminded the class they had spent their last four years preparing for this exact moment of global uncertainty by learning to grapple with “real, unscripted problems.” He called the 21st century “their century.”
Instead of a single keynote speaker, the recorded ceremony featured speeches by three insightful members of the 2020 class.
Britney Johnson, of Addison, Texas, who also received the prestigious 2020 Martha Peterson Prize, talked about the solid friendships she made at Beloit, recounted some highlights of a spectacular four-year run, and offered prayers for those who are hurting during the pandemic. To her class, she said, “We’re going to get through this one. I just know it.”
YJ Na, of Seoul, South Korea, said, “Thank you for coming to what I hope is the first and last virtual Commencement of Beloit College. The graduating class of 2020 will all have different experiences, but we’ll never forget our time spent on 700 College Street in Beloit, Wisconsin. Because we’ve been separated for so long, our next get-together will be more meaningful and precious to each and every one of us.”
In part of her speech, Julia Dirkes-Jacks, of Hoffman Estates, Ill., compared a Beloit education to voice lessons given by many dedicated listeners. “If you want to be a singer, you take voice lessons. Someone teaches you how to use and shape your voice. …. Being a student at Beloit was like taking four years of voice lessons for a different kind of voice, your voice as a human, as a citizen.”
In the college’s 174-year history, the traditional Commencement ceremony has only been cancelled outright once before. That was in 1864, when a ceremony was impossible because so many students and faculty had left campus to enlist with the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War.
At press time, the 2020 graduates were still hoping that most would reconvene on campus in fall to say goodbye in person. A delayed Commencement celebration was being planned for early September.
Corina Şterbeț, a double major in computer science and economics from Moldova, had the highest GPA among students graduating with a bachelor of science degree in 2020. Şterbeț graduated with departmental honors in computer science and a double major in computer science and economics. She received the bachelor of science hood. Hannah Fisher, from Wheaton, Ill., received the bachelor of arts hood. The anthropology major and education minor held the top GPA among all graduates earning a bachelor of arts degree.
Blue Skies Award
Beloit’s 2020 Warren Miller Blue Skies Award went to Parker Blunt for bringing good cheer to everyday life on campus. The anthropology major from Rock City, Ill., served as an RA and as a student leader who also found time to volunteer with organizations in the Beloit-area community. The award, named for cartoonist Warren Miller’60, is one of Beloit’s most original honors, given since 1982 to a graduate each year who uplifts fellow students.
Martha Peterson Prize
The 2020 Martha Peterson Prize, an award established by the class of 1981 in honor of the college’s seventh president, went to Britney Johnson, of Addison, Texas. The dance major and senior class officer was nominated for exemplifying Beloit’s liberal arts traditions through academic achievements and service to the community. Johnson graduated with departmental honors in dance and was one of three graduates selected to address her class during the virtual Commencement event.