Nearly two years after their virtual graduation, the Class of 2020 returned to campus on Wednesday, May 18, for a traditional Commencement ceremony in Princeton Stadium. Approximately 1,045 undergraduate and 115 graduate alumni, along with their family and friends, traveled to celebrate together in person.
“No previous class has shown your unique combination of persistence, achievement and patience,” President Christopher L. Eisgruber said in his Commencement address. “The undergraduate and graduate alumni who make up the Great Class of 2020 will always have a special place in Princeton’s history.”
The Class of 2020 is the only Princeton class to have two Commencement ceremonies and is the first class since World War II to wait two years for an in-person graduation. Their last semester at Princeton was upended by the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 when all students were sent home to finish their studies online.
“While I am glad that we had the option to proceed virtually when we had to in 2020, I am delighted and thrilled to be able to welcome you back to Old Nassau for this momentous occasion,” Eisgruber said as he welcomed the graduates seated in chairs on Powers Field.
In his speech, Eisgruber likened the Class of 2020’s experience to the scientific principle of superposition, which says that a physical system can be "a combination of two inconsistent states: 'up' and 'down' at the same time."
“Could one say that about what you have experienced over the past two years? In your senior spring, you were both at Princeton and not at Princeton. You graduated, and yet you did not. You were together, still Princeton’s Great Class of 2020, and yet you were apart,” Eisgruber said.
He later added: “Though I recognize that not every member of your class can be with us today, I hope that this day and this week nevertheless help to resolve the pandemic’s strange superposition of states so that we can now say emphatically: yes, the Great Class of 2020 is not only connected but together! Yes, the Great Class of 2020 has graduated in every sense of the word! Yes, the Great Class of 2020 is here, observed and observable, roaring like Tigers on this campus once again!”
While the ceremony — held on a sunny spring morning — was a festive occasion, it included a moment of silence for people lost to the pandemic and other causes since 2020.
In her invocation, the Rev. Alison Boden acknowledged the feeling of gratitude that filled the stadium after the Class of 2020’s long separation. “We gather grateful to be together again, grateful also for wisdom gained from so much hardship,” said Boden, dean of religious life and the chapel.
Nicholas Johnson, the Class of 2020 valedictorian, celebrated being able to address his peers in person, rather than by screen.
“It’s an immense privilege for me to be addressing you for the second time as your valedictorian,” Johnson said from the podium on stage while wearing his cap and gown. “The honor of being Princeton’s first Black valedictorian is very dear to me, and I wish to open doors for others in the same way that doors have been so graciously opened for me by Black leaders and other mentors throughout my life.”
Johnson, now a Ph.D. candidate in operations research at MIT, said Commencement was his first time on campus in more than two years.
“In the time since I was last here, I have thought a lot about our time at Princeton and what it meant to me and to us,” he said. “Those 24 months have acted as a filter on my memories, magnifying the most impactful experiences, while obfuscating others — and in its wake, this filtering has left a refined appreciation of how special our four years at Princeton truly were.”
Johnson said his class’ Princeton experience, in particular, has prepared them to lead.
“During the ensuing global health crisis, and time of renewed, heightened national and international dialogue on the topic of race, we stepped up as a class, we maintained and continued to build our community virtually, we supported one another through grief, heartache and distress, and, ultimately, we persevered in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges,” Johnson told his peers. “The world desperately needs leaders who dare to listen to and empathize with those whose views differ from their own. Leaders who will commit to the crusade that is the pursuit of knowledge. I believe that we — the Great Class of 2020 — are such leaders.”
He concluded: “As we enter the world, my hope is that we all commit ourselves to the pursuit of knowledge. Not only is this something that we ought to do, but it is something that we absolutely must do to fully realize our ambition to create value in the world.”
Among the many proud families in the audience were Johnson’s parents, Dexter Gregory Johnson and Anita Brown-Johnson. They drove from Montreal to watch their son speak at Princeton in the morning and their daughter receive a graduate degree from Columbia University in the afternoon.
"Words cannot describe how we feel to finally be able to watch Nicholas and his classmates graduate and to hear him speak on stage. We are overcome by joy, pride, respect, admiration and excitement,” his parents said.
His father added: “Nicholas’ ancestors from Jamaica and the Bahamas would be so happy. There are a lot of people whose shoulders he stands on.”
Brown-Johnson also acknowledged the people on campus who were part of her son’s journey, citing “the investment of everyone — Princeton’s faculty, staff, residential advisers — all who took care of him and all who inspired him.”
In addition to speeches, the ceremony included the recognition of 2020 honorary degree recipients, with Ray Chambers and William Schowalter on stage for the in-person event and Frances Arnold, Robin Roberts, and Linda Tsao Yang recognized in absentia. Dean of the College Jill Dolan and Acting Dean of the Graduate School Cole Crittenden ceremonially conferred the degrees earned by undergraduate, master’s and doctoral students in 2020.
After the event concluded, Class of 2020 alumni made their way to Nassau Hall lawn for another long-awaited tradition: walking out of FitzRandolph Gate. Campus lore says it is bad luck for undergraduates to walk out the center gate before graduating.
“I’m so grateful that all my family gets to see me graduate. It’s been four long years — six! — and it’s good to be here with my friends and see them again,” said Heavyn Jennings, who concentrated in psychology. “It feels amazing to finally end my undergraduate years.”
“It feels official now,” said Florence Odigie, who concentrated in chemical and biological engineering. “It’s been a long journey. I’m just grateful to be here.” Her mortarboard was decorated to read, “Against all the odds,” which she said referred not only to the pandemic but to all the challenges she has surmounted as a Black female engineer.
Music played loudly as students streamed out of the gate and families cheered, snapped photos and took videos.
The festivities will continue, as many members of the Class of 2020 will join alumni from all classes at Reunions on May 19-22.
After Reunions, the University will celebrate this year’s graduating Class of 2022 from Sunday through Tuesday, May 22-24. For more information on year-end events for the Class of 2022, visit the Commencement website.