A Gathering Becomes a Way to Celebrate and Support the Class of 2020

Scattered around the world by the COVID pandemic, the Class of 2020 couldn’t graduate together, but with the help of their classmates, mentors and a few surprise celebrities, “Marking the Moment” gathered them one more time to celebrate their accomplishments and offer words of support in an uncertain time via video messages from faculty, staff, alumni and leaders from across the Duke community.

There were words from President Vincent Price, who noted that while the students were watching across different timezones, they would forever be connected by their Duke education. “Wherever you go as Duke alumni, you will have as your companions, a community of extraordinary people,” Price said. “A Duke family now hundreds of thousands strong. Throughout our lives, we can rely on those companions for help and support, for intellectual challenge, and for fellowship and encouragement to excel.”

Support also came from comedian Ken Jeong, a Duke graduate who was slated to be the 2020 commencement speaker and will speak at some future on-campus ceremony. Sunday, Jeong told the Class of 2020 that his Duke experience gave him the confidence to follow his passion in comedy. “The one message I have for you is to don’t deny your potential,” he said. “I am proof of what potential is all about.”

Jeong wasn’t the only celebrity. Singer Natalie Horler of the group Cascada joined Duke students in singing the group’s hit “Everytime We Touch,” the rousing dance hit that is played just before the start of every men’s basketball home game.

The support also came from a series of live online forums. Men’s Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski offered advice on thriving during challenges, while Chanticleer Editor Annika Sharma ’20 led an online chat with Dean of Students Sue Wasiolek, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education Gary Bennett and Vice President and Vice Provost for Student Affairs Mary Pat McMahon offering advice to the graduates about how to best use their Duke education in their post-graduate lives.

And for the many students who already miss the campus, there were virtual tours of Duke Gardens and a Chapel Climb led by the Class of ‘20’s Tim Skapek.

Marking the Moment also gave students a chance to hear from faculty and friends in their schools and departments. Through video messages, faculty used the opportunity to speak directly to the students about their pride in the graduates and a desire to remain connected. But everyone did this in a personal way: Education Professor David Malone underwent a pop quiz from two of his students. Duke Jazz Ensemble Director John Brown posted a performance of “Bye, Bye Blackbird.”

The moment is unprecedented, but faculty and administrators also wanted the 6,000 new graduates to know that the same skills a Duke education provided others in more stable times will also benefit them now in a disruptive and uncertain one. In a video message to students, Trinity College Dean Valerie Ashby told the students that as they ask themselves how to make their plans for the future, to instead focus on the question of why.

“I wish many things for you as Duke graduates,” Ashby said, “but most of all I wish that each of you will find your ‘why’ and therein the most useful versions of yourself to do the good that this world most desperately needs.”