Nearly 700 members of the Class of 2021 participated in commencement today, cheered on by professors, staff members, and a limited audience of in-person guests, who gathered to celebrate in the open air of Andy Kerr Stadium.
The University’s 200th ceremony followed yesterday’s Senior Torchlight Procession and a virtual baccalaureate service, which featured comments by winners of the Balmuth Award for Teaching and the 1819 Award. These longstanding traditions were carried forward by a determined community that submitted negative COVID-19 tests or proof of vaccination to participate, remaining Colgate Together to the very end of a remarkable in-person semester.
“We have had many days of sadness in the last year,” University Chaplain Corey MacPherson said in his commencement invocation. “So we are especially thankful for this day of celebration.”
President Brian W. Casey, addressing graduates, suggested that those days of sadness could someday be the source of great strength. But, here in the present, it was necessary to acknowledge the full impact of recent history on the Class of 2021.
“History visited this class in more ways than just through a pandemic,” Casey said. “Your college years took place in consequential times.”
Two momentous elections, racial reckoning, political divides, and COVID-19 — national and international events relentlessly shaped this class’ campus experience and the world into which it now graduates. “History unfolds slowly, and the story of you and our times will take time to develop. But I have no doubt that you are now entering a changed world,” Casey said.
To help graduates as they encounter that change, Casey offered advice based on his own experience navigating Colgate through the pandemic. “Do what is right. Don’t cut corners … Go where you are needed. Be at a place where all can see that you are necessary and that you can shoulder things that no one else can — where you can see things that no one else does. It’s there where you will find your purpose.”
And a sense of purpose, Casey noted, is a gift.
Alongside the Class of 2021, three remarkable individuals received honorary doctorates: Joyce H. Banda, former president of the Republic of Malawi and founder of the Joyce Banda Foundation, was honored for her dedication to addressing women’s issues, including domestic violence and prenatal health. Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, was recognized for her scholarship and for her ingenuity, which she has deployed to reduce cruelty to animals and improve the lives of individuals living with autism. Samantha Power, administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, was hailed for her integrity and compassionate commitment to public service, which has benefited both the United States and the world.
Power then spoke to graduating seniors in remarks that were delivered remotely — noting that she might hold the distinction of being the last university professor to address them in an online format.
“This pandemic will end,” Power said. “The key question for all of us, and on this day, especially for you, is what will you do with this reclaimed future?”
According to Power, we developed new habits of thought, new appreciation for workers who were always essential, and new empathy for the plight of people around the world during the pandemic. We also developed new habits of action in order to reassert control over our lives.
However, Power said, “the idea that the pandemic is what took away control over our lives is false. It was always within our power to decide who we made time for. It was always possible to try to do good rather than just earn wealth. Often, we just didn’t.”
Whether we relinquished control to self-concern, social media, or the marketplace, we can make choices that leave us stronger.
“Try not to pursue the things that you are told will make you happy, and try to carry with you the empathy that this past year has given us all — one of the few times in human history when everyone on the planet has had their lives changed at exactly the same time,” Power said. “If you do, I promise you will discover a much more meaningful way of living, one in which you worry less about your plans and more about the gift of each day: the gift of all there is to see and savor around you.”