Week-long commencement celebrates classes of 2020 and 2021

Photo of a USC commencement ceremony at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Each of the in-person commencement ceremonies were livestreamed on a virtual event platform that also hosted digital program books, a virtual processional and an online photo booth. (Kellie Chen | Daily Trojan)

With socially distanced chairs dotting the field of the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum and a total of 14 in-person ceremonies held by individual schools taking place over one week, the USC Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021’s commencement looked a bit different than commencement ceremonies held in previous years. 

Ceremonies were live broadcasted through the virtual event platform 6Connex. The platform also featured on-demand recordings of each ceremony, a digital copy of program books for both classes, a virtual processional and an online photo booth. 

In her commencement address, the first of the week, President Carol Folt acknowledged the 38,000 graduates being celebrated this year. She also recognized the events of the past year, including the coronavirus pandemic and national outcry against racism, hate and social injustice. 

“Here at USC, I am inspired daily by the courage and the perseverance that I see,” Folt said. “I have been deeply moved as I watched you discover new opportunities to contribute and grow, even during these difficult times. Whatever its impact, COVID didn’t derail or defeat you. It certainly didn’t define you.” 

Folt announced USC’s plans to host in-person commencement ceremonies for both classes in a Universitywide email in mid-March. Originally, the ceremonies were limited to California residents, before it was expanded to include all students on April 9. 

“I think that the fact that they were able to even give us an in-person commencement was really great,” said Gregory Huffman, who received a master’s degree in physician assistant practice. “It might not have been as functional as last year or run as smoothly as other years, but it was something.” 

Each student was allowed to invite two guests to the in-person ceremony, who were required to be either California residents or fully vaccinated. Guests were seated, socially distanced, in the stands of the Coliseum.

Kelley Lu, who received a master’s degree in physician assistant practice, invited her two parents to her in-person ceremony. Lu said that because her parents are both vaccinated and residents of Los Angeles County, the process of bringing them to the ceremony was “a little bit less complicated.” 

For Omar Amezquita, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science in 2020, the guest limit meant his younger brother was unable to attend the in-person ceremony. 

“My mom, dad and my brother were the most important ones for me to have there, and it sucked that my brother wasn’t able to make it,” Amezquita said. “Most of the motivation that I’ve had throughout school and through every challenge that I’ve been through was to set an example for him and at the end of the day, to not have him there was really disappointing.”

The ceremonies were hosted at the Coliseum twice a day for one week, with a majority of the speakers and performances presented through videos.  

During the ceremony, Tianna Shaw-Wakeman, who received a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a progressive master’s degree in social entrepreneurship, spoke about being the first Black valedictorian at USC and about choosing to be kind and compassionate. 

“This past year, in the midst of COVID-19, we experienced how quickly and ferociously hate can spread and become its own pandemic,” Shaw-Wakeman said. “But we can choose not to be a part of it. In our future careers, future families and future relationships, we can choose to use the best parts of ourselves to see the best parts in everyone else.” 

Isabella Hauptman, the Class of 2020’s valedictorian, spoke about moving forward after the pandemic in her second valedictorian’s address. 

“Now, as we graduate, we are uniquely positioned to create … a future that is more sustainable, more equitable, more just, more empathetic,” said Hauptman, who received a bachelor’s degree in cognitive science in 2020 and a master’s degree in applied biostatistics and epidemiology. “A future centered around collaboration and innovation. A future that we can be proud of.” 

Commencement speaker and journalist Bina Venkataraman praised the graduating classes on their overcoming of trauma and adversity, both of world events and of their individual lives. 

“My fierce hope is that you will keep honing your talents, your knowledge, your work ethic, all of your rare gifts that have gotten you here today, but that you will also summon the courage to stand for the truth, to stand for others who need it and to let yourself imagine the possibility of things that others can’t see,” Venkataraman said. 

The ceremonies also included pre-recorded musical performances of the national anthem and an original song, “One More Smile,” from a student jazz ensemble in the Thornton School of Music. 

Lu said that given the current situation, she was “thankful to even have an in-person ceremony in the first place.” 

“It kind of felt like a combination of a normal graduation but also something you can see during COVID times,” Lu said. “It was an awesome experience.”