I love commencement. With my near-religious connection to higher education and firsthand experience of its life-changing power, I hold commencement as a sacred and ecstatic ritual. It is traditionally one of the few occasions where we academics indulge in a bit of fanfare and grandeur, bringing out our elaborate scholarly robing with its symbolic silk cords and velvet hoods. We look out at a sea of square-top graduation caps. A band plays “Pomp and Circumstance,” or some other march equally appropriate to the processional. Someone carries the regal mace. However, none of that ephemera seems well suited to this unprecedented moment and a New School commencement that will be decidedly high-tech and nontraditional. For this one, and for the first time in as many years as I can remember, my regalia remains in storage. And that’s not all that’s different.
I have participated in numerous commencement ceremonies over my academic career — as a graduating student, then a faculty member, a department chair, dean, and provost. It has never become routine. Each time feels new and special, and I am always moved by the inspiring words, the exemplars of obstacles overcome and goals reached, the pride displayed by loved ones in attendance, and the profound sense of optimism in the space. Every graduation has made me smile, cheer, and, I admit without embarrassment, shed a few tears.
But this commencement will be historic and unforgettable in ways we could never have imagined. It comes amid — some might say despite — an unprecedented public health crisis, with campus closed, gatherings canceled, thousands of students completing their studies online, futures uncertain. We will come together on Friday in the best way that we can to celebrate the monumental achievement of some 3,390 New School students, with genuine pride but hearts still tugged at by the sense of loss and uncertainty that characterizes these times. The taut balance of competing emotions is almost too much to contemplate, but I am placing my bet on joy carrying the day. I am reminded of a poem by African American poet Lucille Clifton, “won’t you celebrate with me,” which captures the spirit of overcoming obstacles and the need to celebrate when we do:
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
One month into my presidency, I have only begun to know the Class of 2020. Yet I feel a unique and lasting connection to this graduating class. We will always be bonded in this unbelievable spring of most unusual beginnings and endings, excitement and concern, struggle and hope. This group has shown courage and fortitude in the face of massive disruption and obstacles just as they were approaching the finish line. They have surprised themselves in terms of how strongly they ended the year, how much they learned and produced that they hadn’t expected to, and how they have emerged from this experience. I am not sure they know just how much they have taught me — and all of us really — by example. What an honor it will be to pronounce the conferral of their degrees.
Like everyone else, I will be participating on Friday physically separated but drawing energy from the words, expressions, and creativity being shared online. And I am certain that I will, even alone in my apartment, smile readily, cheer wholeheartedly, and, yes, shed a few tears.
Despite the compromises and challenges of this spring, I still love commencement. And I could not be prouder of the extraordinary New School Class of 2020.
Dr. Dwight A. McBride is the president of The New School.