USC celebrates Class of 2020 with virtual commencement

While commencement could not be held in its traditional format this semester due to concerns about large gatherings amid the spread of the coronavirus, the University put on an online event for seniors to celebrate their time at USC. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

Campus stood nearly silent as the Class of 2020 joined commencement celebrations from their phones and laptops at home without the full regalia and sounding of “Fight On” and “Conquest” sounding from the Spirit of Troy. Following a pandemic that swept across the globe and pushed everyone to shelter in place, USC was forced to host its May commencement virtually, though a second will be held in person once it is safe to do so. Though bittersweet for seniors who missed out on much of the end-of-year traditions, the virtual commencement brought together members of the USC community to celebrate the accomplishments of the graduating class. 

President Carol Folt opened the main ceremony Friday by recognizing the more than 19,000 students graduating in the Class of 2020 and the unprecedented circumstances that made a virtual event necessary. She acknowledged the pandemic’s impact on the graduating class and praised the way students have adapted to an unfamiliar situation and contributed to their communities through volunteerism and creative work.

“Many people are suffering, but you stepped up to deal with your upended plans and different dreams,” Folt told attendees. “I know many of you are concerned about your future in the face of so much uncertainty this year. You’re probably asking, ‘Even with a superb education from USC, will I make it?’ You will.”

Graduating senior Natalia Smith, who is currently in Los Angeles, watched the virtual commencement with her family in England via screen sharing. Smith said that while an online graduation wasn’t what she had envisioned, she appreciated the online engagement USC planned and looks forward to attending the in-person ceremony. 

“I was pretty disappointed to start with, because … we’ve kind of built up to this moment for the last four years,” said Smith, who received a bachelor’s degree in international relations and nongovernmental organizations and social change. “At least we know at some point in the future, we’ll be getting together to celebrate it.”

In the commencement address, her first as president, Folt advised graduates to believe in themselves and use the skills they learned as students to pursue their ambitions. The collaboration and connection fostered at USC would help them succeed, she said.

“You are a remarkable group of individuals with an extraordinary education, and you’re living in a remarkable time when extraordinary things are both needed and possible,” Folt said. “Your moment has arrived, and you are up to the task.”

Valedictorian Isabella Hauptman, who received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science, spoke about the changes students in the Class of 2020 have witnessed during their tenure at USC, including Folt’s selection and inauguration.

“We’ve seen enormous change ripple throughout our campus and our country at USC,” Hauptman said. “We’ve watched our University take steps toward reform, witnessed multiple transitions in leadership and have experienced the implementation of policies centered around inclusion and social responsibility.”

She applauded USC’s decision to postpone rather than cancel in-person commencement and said the compromise took students’ opinions into consideration while protecting the well-being of the University community.

President Carol Folt commended the Class of 2020 for adapting to a new setting created by the pandemic and advised graduates to continue pursuing their ambitions despite the new challenges. (Vincent Leo | Daily Trojan)

“I am immensely proud of USC for the way it has responded to our national crisis while keeping our values in mind,” Hauptman said. “Of course, we would have all much preferred to be together and celebrate this momentous occasion, but we prioritized the health and safety of our fellow Trojans.”

Deans from each of USC’s schools recorded short videos recognizing their graduating students and praising their resilience. Provost Charles Zukoski presented candidates for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees before actor and alumnus Will Ferrell briefly interrupted Folt’s degree conferral speech mid-sentence with a message for the new alumni.

“You’ve made it through — you’re a USC graduate,” Ferrell said. “I know it’s been a challenging semester, but you’ll have stories for the rest of your lives. Take care, fight on and congratulations.”

Other notable individuals participated in graduation activities throughout the day. Actors Mark Hamill and Rainn Wilson partook in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s virtual commencement, while composer and musician John Williams spoke at the Thornton School of Music’s ceremony.

The main ceremony also featured a jazz rendition of “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Thornton jazz studies students and a performance of “Fight On” by members of the Trojan Marching Band, who streamed their parts individually.

Leading up to virtual commencement, the University encouraged 2020 graduates to post photos on Instagram with the hashtags #USCGrad, #2020Trojan and #USCMemories. It also created downloadable celebration kits with Instagram story filters, yard signs and Zoom backgrounds from iconic spots on campus. Alumni Aloe Blacc, Rozzi and Saweetie celebrated the Class of 2020 with a Zoom Visions and Voices concert Wednesday.

“The Trojan Family and alumni and all the faculty really tried to make this as special as possible and they did an amazing job,” said Emily Markarian, who received a bachelor’s degree in human biology and a master’s degree in health administration. “It’s not the same as an in-person ceremony, but it’s very touching to see the effort they put into it and dedication.”

Schools and faith-based organizations also held additional ceremonies throughout the day. Cultural centers, which typically hold special events during graduation — including the Chicanx/Latinx Graduate Celebration, Lavender Celebration, African American Cultural Celebration and the Asian Pacific Graduate Celebration — to recognize their graduates had to place traditional celebrations on hold. 

Instead, cultural centers commemorated their graduating seniors with mementos. La CASA sent commemorative booklets and stoles to seniors in the Latinx Honor Society, while Asian Pacific American Students Services created a graduation video with photos of seniors and addresses from leaders of APASS and the International Student Assembly. The Center for Black Cultural and Student Affairs mailed graduates a souvenir book and a newsletter with video messages from several graduates.

Jamia Pugh, who graduated with a master’s degree in journalism, was one of the keynote speakers included in the CBCSA newsletter. Besides wishing she could have delivered her speech in person, Pugh hopes that her video message resonates with her graduating class. 

“For me personally, it was more important to deliver my message that I had originally written up to make sure I connect with each of the African American Trojans on a deeper level versus talking about the virus, which we all already know is an unfortunate situation,” Pugh said.

Although cultural centers’ in-person ceremonies could not take place this year, the Student Equity and Inclusion Programs plan for a joint in-person cultural group celebration in the future.  

To conclude the commencement ceremony, Folt assured students that the University has begun planning for the in-person commencement, which USC will host as soon as it is safe to do so.

“I know you’ll join generations of your fellow Trojans who have used their knowledge and their talents to make the world a better place,” Folt said. “Wherever you go in life, please know that your Trojan Family will be there to support you.”