Yesterday, the Heidelberg University Class of 2020 should have had their procession down Greenfield Street to Hoernemann Stadium for their graduation ceremony. Families would have celebrated as their loved ones’ names were called in alphabetical order. But this was a different year. COVID-19 guaranteed that.
Instead of these traditions, more than 250 graduates were recognized by President Rob Huntington, outgoing Provost Beth Schwartz, and Executive Director of Alumni Engagement & Gifts Ashley Helmstetter in virtual messages. Within some individual departments, caps and gowns were replaced with one small Zoom box for each student, some of which also filled the space with moms and dads taking photos in the background. A class photo with alumni turned into a multi-page screen shot. And our Sweet Alma Home was recorded by some amazing virtual work done by the Concert Choir.
It wasn’t what anyone dreamed of when they stepped onto campus, but once again a generation took it in stride and showed their resilience. Alumni Council Vice President Melissa Harrison, ’02, saw some similarities to her own graduation 18 years ago, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement to this year’s graduates.
Melissa was selected to represent her class as the speaker for commencement. This year, she was asked to speak personally to the political science grads as part of their virtual ceremony. Her message, though, applies perfectly to ALL members of the Class of ’20.
Here is her message:
When I was asked to give a few words of advice to the Communications and Political Science graduates, I immediately agreed, and then wondered what to say in times like these. I did some math and realized 18 years ago, I stood before my graduating class in Seiberling Gymnasium as our student commencement speaker facing a similar dilemma.
There was no outdoor ceremony or walk down Greenfield with our class banner for us because it rained. Disappointed? Yes. Deterred? No. I thought back to what I shared on that day and what we faced as the first class to graduate in a post 9/11 world. Uncertainty was high and job prospects were low. We talked about a “new normal” and what it would look like in a future where everything felt different. We weren’t just leaving the comfort of college, we were stepping into a world that had fundamentally changed.
Clearly, my class wasn’t the first to graduate and face obstacles. And clearly, the class of 2020 won’t be the last. But it should remind us that while there may be years of experience between us, we can learn from one another. We have been here before and together we will figure it out.
And while I considered just “borrowing” from President Obama’s speech Saturday night, I decided to offer my own five pieces of advice to my now fellow Heidelberg alumni:
1. “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” (Eleanor Roosevelt) Your individual dream is beautiful and worthy of chasing, regardless of current circumstances. Pursue your passion and your job will never feel like work.
2. Be selfish, but in the best kind of way. Take care of yourself! There is a reason why airlines tell you in case of emergency, to put on your oxygen mask first — you can’t take care of others if you don’t help yourself first.
3. It’s okay to be afraid. But, it’s not okay to let fear keep you from pursuing your dreams. Life is short and not always fair, so you must keep putting one foot in front of the other.
4. Don’t let the a-holes get you down. A very wise woman once told me this and it’s stuck with me for life. (Thanks Mom!) And as another wise woman said, “haters gonna hate” so ignore them and keep on moving. (Thanks T-Swift!)
5. You are not alone. Today may feel lonely, but you are now part of our alumni family. Find your local alumni group and join it! Let one of us be your Kevin Bacon in your job hunt. (Good news! The six degrees of separation reference wasn’t lost on the grads! #ShowingMyAge) Now is the perfect time to find ways to get connected and start giving back to the next generation of students.
To the Class of 2020, today is your day regardless of where or how you celebrated. You earned it and you deserve it. On behalf of all of us Berg grads who came before you, congratulations! The first round is on us at Homecoming.