Remarks at the Class of 2020 in-person Commencement ceremony
by Martha E. Pollack, President
As prepared for delivery
Saturday, Sept. 19, 2021
Ithaca, New York
Welcome Class of 2020!
It is so good to see you.
I know some of us felt that this day might never come—but today, here we are. After so many months, and so much waiting, I am so incredibly glad to have you here today, celebrating your Cornell Commencement the way a Cornell Commencement should be celebrated: on Schoellkopf Field, in caps and gowns, and with families and friends cheering you on.
Before I say anything else, I want to start out by acknowledging everyone who’s helped bring the extraordinary Class of 2020 to Cornell, through Cornell, and back to Cornell today: the parents, grandparents, and siblings, the family by birth and family by choice, the friends, teachers, and mentors who made you who you are.
So, graduates, before I say anything else, this is what I want you to do. This is a football stadium that hasn’t had nearly enough noise for the last couple of years. We made a start on making up for lost time at the game yesterday, but there’s still a lot more to do. So right now, I want every one of our graduates to stand up and turn around. If you know where your family and friends are sitting, face them, but if not, just turn in the general direction. Don’t do anything else yet, just turn around. And if your friends and family weren’t able to get here today, don’t worry—it’ll be their turn in a minute.
On the count of three, in whatever language it is you speak at home—whether it’s English, or Spanish, or Hindi, or Yoruba, or Chinese, or Cayuga, or anything else—I want you to yell thank you so loudly, that they’d hear you in the stands even during a tiebreaking touchdown for the Big Red against Harvard.
All right? One, two, three:
That was good! But we’re not done yet. Now turn back and face me, but don’t sit down.
It’s amazing to have so many people in the stands today, but I know that there are many, many more people who would have loved to be here today in person, who are with us in spirit, and also watching us on the livestream at home. So now I’d like to introduce you to someone who’s going to help you say thank you to them.
Graduates, could you please look over to my right—your left, my right. Over there, in the red shirt, is Steven. Steven, can you give a wave so everyone sees you?
Steven is operating Camera Number Three, which is the camera bringing the livestream of this event to everyone watching around the world. All those people you wish were sitting behind you right now—you can’t see them, but they’re actually sitting in front of you, right behind Steven.
So on the count of three, my count of three, in whatever language you use at home—I want you to yell thank you so loud, they won’t need the internet to hear you.
One, two, three—
I think they heard you. You can sit back down.
And before we go any further, I want to pause for this next moment, and acknowledge the people who are with us only in our hearts—the students whose graduation this should have been, and everyone we’ve lost to COVID-19.
Wherever we’ve spent the last year and a half, all of us have spent much more time communicating through cameras and screens, and much less time being together in person, than we would have liked. I have to say it’s pretty amazing to finally be getting the chance to communicate with the Class of 2020 in person—not via yet another community email.
I’m not knocking email. Sometimes there’s an update to share and email is the quickest way. But it’s a lot nicer to be able to talk to you in person, and have the freedom to not talk about things that, if we had the choice, we’d never think about again. So before I go any further, I want you to know, definitively, that the rest of my message today will not contain any of the following words or phrases: unprecedented, uncertain, challenging, proactive, new normal, physical distancing, public health, mask-wearing, Zoom meeting, virtual celebration, virtual event, super-spreader event, surveillance testing, contact tracing, quarantine, transmission, mitigation, adaptation, ventilation, isolation, vaccination, or—pandemic.
Oh, and I won’t say “you’re muted.”
When I arrived at Cornell, in the spring of 2017, you, the Class of 2020, had nearly finished your freshman year. While your graduation still felt really far away, you had already absorbed so much about being a Cornellian. You had already discovered the joys of the Cornell chimes, Cornell ice cream, and Cornell hockey games, just as I was discovering the joys of getting totally lost on the Cornell campus.
You were the impossibly young and bright and promising students I walked alongside on one of my first days here, when the Dean of the Law School taught me the Cornell Alma Mater as we walked across Ho Plaza, on the way to Law School graduation—not just the words and the music, but the most important thing I needed to know:
“When you sing it, you have to sway.”
Week by week, month by month, experience by experience—for all of us, this place became our place. With every class, every club meeting, every prelim and problem set, every early-morning coffee and late-night conversation—all of you became a part of the rhythm and life of Cornell.
As the seasons changed, you changed too—from nervous freshmen who wondered if they really belonged here, to confident sophomores and juniors who had found their place here. You made friends who were nothing like you, and you learned from them—while they learned from you. You took classes in subjects you’d never heard of, and discovered interests you’d never imagined.
And when it was time to sing the Cornell alma mater, in Lynah Rink or Bailey Hall or here in Schoellkopf—you reached out to whoever was next to you, and put your arms around them. And when you sang, you swayed. By the time you were seniors—Cornell had become family, and it had also become home.
You were in the middle of your last semester, looking ahead to your last spring break—perhaps getting ready for grad school or professional school, perhaps interviewing for jobs, planning the next stage of your lives. You were thinking about all the things you wanted to do in your last months on campus: the places you wanted to visit, the people you wanted to spend time with.
Slope Day, and Senior Week, and, of course, Commencement.
But before you got there, the world turned upside down. And instead of leaving on spring break, you had to just leave. Our Cornell community was, suddenly, a Cornell diaspora—a place that existed as much inside our minds and memories and computer screens, as it did in its buildings and paths and quads. You finished your degrees at your kitchen tables and in your childhood bedrooms, as you talked and texted and facetimed with your friends, and you never really said goodbye.
As the months passed, instead of looking back, you looked forward: starting jobs and graduate programs from your new apartments—or the homes you grew up in. Cornell came with you—in what you learned here, the skills you acquired, the relationships you built. And wherever you went, no matter how far you traveled, you knew, like Odysseus—that one day, you would come home again, to Ithaca.
Homecoming has been a Cornell tradition for just over a century now. Every year, it’s been a time for Cornellians to return to campus, to see the gorges and the waterfalls and each other, and cheer on the Big Red. This year’s Homecoming, for each of you, is a different kind of homecoming—more than just a chance to see the familiar places, and the familiar faces, of your time here. It’s a time to celebrate everything you achieved at Cornell, and everything you’ve achieved since. A time to come back to this community, that will always be your home. A time to sing the Alma Mater, one more time, with your Cornell family.
What this homecoming is not, and what this Commencement is not—is a time to say goodbye.
Because wherever you are, wherever you go from here, no matter how long it’s been—you will always be a Cornellian. And wherever Cornellians are—Cornell will always be with you, and Cornell will always be home.
It’s been sixteen months since you finished your last papers, turned in your last projects, and passed your last exams. Your degrees are long since conferred, and your diplomas already framed and hanging on the wall. But I am so glad to have you here again, to tell you, in person, what I’ve wanted to say to you for so long:
Congratulations, Cornellians. May the educations you began here never truly end; may they continue on, throughout your lives, wherever they may take you; and may the knowledge and the ethos you gained here always guide your paths.
Cornell will always be a part of you, just as you will always be a part of Cornell.