Princeton University held its 274th Commencement on Sunday, May 16, with an outdoor ceremony that celebrated the accomplishments of students and marked the challenges of the last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Traditionally held on the lawn in front of Nassau Hall, the ceremony was moved to Princeton Stadium to accommodate social distancing. The event followed public health and safety guidelines. Ceremonial robes, mortarboards and masks were the accessories of the day.
“By completing your studies amidst this awful pandemic, you have distinguished yourselves even by the standards of this University’s long and illustrious history,” President Christopher L. Eisgruber told students. “And in so doing, you have earned the right to participate in this unique and memorable Commencement ceremony, a ceremony that … provides a surprisingly apt metaphor for the past year.”
Seniors in the Class of 2021 and graduate degree candidates were invited to the ceremony with up to two guests each, though not all students attended. An estimated 1,100 seniors, 200 graduate students and 3,000 guests were present Sunday. Students sat in chairs spaced apart on Powers Field, while guests were socially distanced in assigned seating among the stands.
Commencement was also streamed live so students, families and friends from around the world could watch. A recording of the ceremony will be posted online for later viewing and clips from the event are available on Princeton's YouTube channel.
In his address titled “Together, Six Feet Apart,” Eisgruber noted: “We are together, gathered through creative planning, technological assistance, the tireless work of many people and a fierce determination to mark with physical presence this important moment in your lives. And yet as we are together, we are also apart, masked, separated by carefully marked six-foot intervals and denied the joyous embraces that we would ordinarily exchange on graduation day.”
Eisgruber said the pandemic resulted in one of the most challenging years in the history of the University. Undergraduates left campus in March 2020 after the COVID-19 virus emerged worldwide. Classes went virtual and remained so through the spring 2021 semester, though undergraduates had the option to live in campus housing this spring under strict safety rules.
“You now share with other graduating college students throughout the world this year a parallel experience of disruption, constraint, challenge, persistence and achievement in response to this pandemic,” Eisgruber said to students. “The journey that commences today will take you into a new and changing world. I am confident that you are well prepared for the challenge. You have excelled here, and you have persisted through the pandemic with extraordinary determination, creativity, intelligence, compassion and courage. We will need your leadership, your vision and your dedication to the service of humanity.”
The graduation celebration was also tinged with somber reflection, as speakers noted the family and friends who could not attend the ceremony because of travel and public health restrictions; the loved ones lost to COVID-19; and the parts of the world where the pandemic still rages.
“The losses inflicted by COVID-19 have undoubtedly differed significantly from person to person. They have also differed across racial and economic groups, reminding us once again of the need to dedicate ourselves to achieving genuine social justice, not only in this country but around the world,” Eisgruber said. “We should recognize these disparities while also recognizing that in real and meaningful ways, we have shared the anxieties and burdens of this pandemic with people not only throughout this stadium, or this country, but across social divisions, international borders and, indeed, vast continents.”
The pandemic, Eisgruber said, has also shown us the importance of community.
“Simply put, our long, unwelcome separation teaches us this: to forge a common good together, we must break bread together. We must, in other words, relate to one another not just as disembodied intellects, interests or ideologies, or as faces in Zoom boxes, but also as real, three-dimensional people who share basic needs and a common humanity,” he said. “We must all recover, renew and reinvigorate the genuinely human forms of connection so missing from our world over the last year and all too absent, even before the pandemic, from our country’s conversations about America’s common good. As you venture forth beyond this campus, I hope that you will seize the opportunity to build the genuine community that we so urgently need.”
Valedictory and salutatory address, other honors presented at Commencement
In his valedictory address, senior Taishi Nakase spoke of the “common joy, loss and triumph” shared by the Class of 2021. Nakase, an operations and financial engineering concentrator, is a first-generation college student from Melbourne, Australia.
Amidst the loneliness and grief that classmates felt during the pandemic, they also experienced moments of kindness and sympathy, Nakase said.
“My wish for all of us as we move forward with our lives past FitzRandolph Gate and past this terrible pandemic is to find within us a keener sense of sympathy. A sympathy that not only turns us towards grand historical feats and game-changing research but stretches forth to the ordinary acts and feelings of individuals that are too often left unremembered and unnoticed,” he said.
Nakase recalled last spring when he returned home to Melbourne — after three years away — and spent quality time with his father.
“I know we are all capable of this sympathy. I know it. I felt it in the food my father cooked for me as I was struggling with feelings of having lost a portion of my youth. I have seen it in the efforts of so many of you as you care for the health of your family, your friends and people who you may never see again. I have seen it in my professors who acknowledge our challenges and attempt to recreate the intellectual community we had lost,” Nakase said. “As we find our feet in this new chapter in our lives, I hope that we can develop the courage to hear the roar that lies on the other side of silence and to live our lives faithfully with sympathy in our hearts.”
In her salutatory address, delivered in Latin in accordance with longstanding Princeton tradition, senior Lucy Wang recalled how far the Class of 2021 has come.
“With courage in our hearts, we have faced the terrors of frozen Zoom and traversed the scorching sands of thesis deadlines,” Wang said. “Perhaps one day, even these experiences will be a pleasure to remember. Long have we awaited this day, shores dear to behold. My friends, may the glittering stars always guide your journeys!”
In addition to remarks, the Commencement ceremony also named six honorary degree recipients, all from New Jersey: Jon Bon Jovi, musician and philanthropist; Linda Caldwell Epps, educator and CEO of 1804 Consultants; John Fleming, Princeton’s Louis W. Fairchild ‘24 Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Emeritus; Rush Holt, physicist and eight-term member of Congress; Dr. Risa Juanita Lavizzo-Mourey, public health advocate and longtime president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and Constance Mercer Myers, founder and leader of HomeFront.
Other awards included the President’s Awards for Distinguished Teaching, given this year to four Princeton faculty members, and the Princeton Prize for Distinguished Secondary School Teaching, given this year to four outstanding New Jersey secondary school teachers.
Following the ceremony, students recessed out of the stadium to receive congratulations, flowers, balloons and beaming smiles from proud friends and family.
Abby Clark, an English concentrator, had driven from Gatlinburg, Tennessee, with her parents and two dogs to attend Commencement.
“It took 13 hours, but we would not have missed it,” said Clark’s mom, Courtney Wison. “I can’t even explain how good it feels to celebrate Abby’s graduation in person. She has worked so hard since the day she got to Princeton.”
Isabel Ting, a politics concentrator, had been studying remotely from northern California since March 2020 and said it was wonderful to be back on campus, even just for a few days. “It still feels so familiar,” she said.
Allen Van Tay, a philosophy concentrator, hugged his aunt and uncle outside the stadium. Meanwhile, his parents had watched the ceremony live from their home in Ghana.
“I was worried that no one from my family would be able to watch me graduate,” he said. “This is really great.”
The date of the 2021 Commencement ceremony was moved up due to the pandemic. The official conferral date of degrees will be May 25, 2021. Students will receive their diplomas, certificates and official Commencement programs by mail after that date.
Other graduation events
The Graduate School will host a virtual Hooding ceremony for master’s and doctoral degree candidates on Monday, May 24, at 4 p.m. The ceremony can be viewed live on the Princeton University homepage or YouTube.
Other events for the undergraduate Class of 2021 included:
On Sunday afternoon, 12 members of the Class of 2021 were commissioned as military officers during an outdoor ROTC ceremony. The featured speaker was Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Walrath. Princeton offers Army, Navy and Air Force ROTC programs for undergraduates.
At Class Day, author, comedian and host of “The Daily Show” Trevor Noah urged seniors to foster friendships that create “home” wherever they are, to travel to challenge their worldview and to not let the lessons of compassion learned in the pandemic recede into history.
During Baccalaureate, Prairie View A&M University President Ruth J. Simmons, a former Princeton administrator and trustee and a former president of Brown University, described how education and "learning from difference" transported her from a childhood on a plantation to serving as the first Black president of an Ivy League University.
Recordings of graduation events are available on the Graduation 2021 playlist on Princeton's YouTube channel.