On Thursday evening, 8,628 new graduates of the University of Utah may have donned their real caps and gowns and regalia, but the walks they made across a stage to take hold of the 9,280 degrees they earned were limited to the realm of the imaginary.
Such are the unfortunate concessions being made to combat the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Even as locales across the country prepare for limited and phased reopenings of businesses and services that have previously been closed, even as stay-at-home orders are increasingly lifted, no conditions exist yet allowing for the gathering of thousands of people in one place.
And so it was that the U.’s 151st general commencement became its first to be conducted virtually, with a livestream taking place online.
“Milestones of great magnitude are always worth celebrating regardless of circumstance,” noted Miranda Stewart, the 2020 general commencement student speaker, who earned degrees in both sociology and international studies. “But they’re also sobering, and even more so now.”
The livestream was officiated by President Ruth V. Watkins, who invoked the uniqueness of the situation in her opening remarks.
“I want to acknowledge the disappointment you feel. We would all rather be in the Huntsman Center, marching in together, several thousand strong, listening to the applause and cheers of your friends, family and supporters,” Watkins said. “This is not the commencement you anticipated all the years you were working hard on your degrees. And it is not the joyous celebration we wanted to give you. But let me be clear about what matters — it is not the pomp or unusual circumstances we find ourselves in. What matters is this: You did it.”
Keynote speaker John Warnock, co-founder of Adobe Inc., naturally devoted many of his remarks to marking the momentous growth of information technology over the past half-century — a particularly fitting topic given how the commencement ceremony was held.
“Things that were thought to be impossible have materialized over the years. The changes over the coming years will probably be much greater and even more consequential for all of our lives,” Warnock said. “To manage this evolution, the world needs an educated and informed populace. Today, you are being honored and have earned the right of becoming part of that group.
“Because of the rapid progress in information and technology, your need for education, constant learning and understanding of the world will never be slowed down or paused,” he continued. “Continuing education will be with you for the rest of your life.”
The degrees awarded included 5,851 bachelor’s degrees, 2,411 master’s degrees, 686 doctorates, 92 Juris Doctors, 134 doctors of medicine, 60 doctors of pharmacy and 46 doctors of dental surgery. The youngest graduate was 18, the oldest 69; undergrads were, on average, 25 years old, while graduate students earning degrees averaged 31 years of age. Some 321 veterans earned a degree.
The top 10 undergraduate majors were psychology, communication, kinesiology, biology, nursing, economics, mechanical engineering, political science, accounting and finance.
A little less than an hour into the proceedings, the deans of the various colleges throughout the university took turns appearing onscreen in prerecorded video vignettes recognizing the candidates for the degrees being conveyed, each concluding their brief, sometimes amusing, flowery and humorous remarks with the simple phrase: “Please stand and be recognized.”
The ceremony then concluded with messages of congratulations from many in the fields of politics, entertainment and athletics, including former Utah Utes and NFL stars Alex Smith and Steve Smith; current coaches Kyle Whittingham (football), Larry Krystkowiak (men’s basketball) and Tom Farden (gymnastics); members of the Utah Royals professional women’s soccer team; X96 radio host Gina Barbieri; ESPN personality Holly Rowe; Utah Gov. Gary Herbert; Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall; and Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert.
Traditional in-person college convocations are currently scheduled to take place Dec. 18-19.