Speeches & Writings

Remarks at the Class of 2020 Virtual Commencement

by Martha E. Pollack, President

As prepared for delivery
Sunday, June 13, 2021
Ithaca, New York

Hello Cornellians! Welcome to the Class of 2020, and to all of our Cornell families and friends.

I think all of us agree with Bill Nye that this year has been amazing, odd, and historic—and most of us could add a few more adjectives of our own.

It’s now been over a year since you left Cornell, in circumstances none of us could ever have imagined when you first arrived. It’s been a year of change and of loss, and of learning to navigate our lives in this different world we now inhabit.

In March of 2020, when we took our first steps into this new reality of physical distance and virtual connection, we didn’t yet know the direction the pandemic would take. We didn’t yet know how long it would last. But we did already know how much all of you would miss by having to leave campus early—and we didn’t want you to miss any more of your Cornell experience than you had to. So rather than canceling Commencement, which had never been done before, we decided to postpone. And then, when the pandemic entered its second year, and it still wasn’t safe to welcome you back—we did what none of us wanted to do, and postponed Commencement again.

Today, all of you have moved on from your lives as Cornell students, to your lives as Cornell alumni. You’re living, working, and studying around the country, and around the world, putting everything you learned here to use in your programs and your careers. And while I hope many of you will be able to come back to Ithaca for that long-awaited in-person celebration, with caps and gowns, that we have planned for September 19th, I know that for many of you, a trip to Ithaca won’t be practical.

So as much as I wish I were saying this to you in Schoellkopf, under a sunny sky—or let’s face it, this being Ithaca, possibly a rainy one—I’m still so glad to have this opportunity to congratulate all of you, at this virtual event, for everything you’ve accomplished since you came to Cornell, and since you left it. The pandemic may have taken away our chance to celebrate together your transition from Cornell students, to Cornell alumni—but it can never take away your Cornell education, or your Cornell community.

As Cornellians, all of you share a special bond—one forged by your experiences here, and by the particular ethos of this institution for any person, and any study, that we all call our own. It’s a bond that has always transcended distance and time—that will connect you with each other; with the generations of graduates who came before you; and with the generations who will follow.

Bill Nye just gave you all some great advice, and, as is appropriate to an event like this one, I’ll add a little more. I can’t compete with “don’t walk barefoot in a tack factory,” for sheer good sense. But what I’ll ask of all of you is simply to make sure that the educations you began at Cornell, and that you continued in so many different places—continue on, throughout your lives, wherever you may be.

Let the Cornell ethos of openness and curiosity, of equity and inclusion, of readiness to learn and willingness to explore, stay with you always. Whatever lies ahead, for each of you, know that you will forever be a part of this remarkable chapter of Cornell’s history—the class that completed their degrees in circumstances no Cornellians had ever faced before.

Congratulations to all of you, and remember that Cornell will always be a part of you, and you, and the extraordinary Class of 2020, will always be a part of Cornell.

Class of 2020—all of you are already alumni. You’ve received your diplomas, and maybe you’ve already had them framed, and hung them on the wall.

So while I don’t need to say it to make it official, I’ll say it anyway:

Class of 2020, upon the recommendation of the faculty of your respective colleges, and by the authority vested in me by the Trustees of Cornell University, I hereby confer upon each of you the degrees appropriate to your fields of study with all the rights, privileges, honors and responsibilities pertaining thereto.

Congratulations, graduates. When the pandemic is over, please come back, and visit often. I look forward to welcoming many of you to Homecoming, and to our in-person Commencement Ceremony this September—and to welcoming all of you back to Ithaca, at many in-person Reunions to come.