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‘You flipped the script’: Class of 2020 welcomed home for overdue Commencement celebration

A member of the class of 2020 waves during the procession down the Mall for Commencement.

View a gallery of photos from Commencement
Read commencement address by Deb Richardson-Moore
Read student address by Emily Rose Zeytoonjian ’20
Read commencement poem by Zachary Hughes ’20
2020 honors graduates
2020 student and faculty awards
2020 Senior Spotlights

View the archived livestream

It all happened the way it was supposed to. The procession down the Mall in caps and gowns; the band, speeches and prayers in Paladin Stadium; and the walk across the stage as their names were called.

For Furman’s class of 2020, it all just happened about a year later than expected.

Last spring, the students sat down at at home and watched President Elizabeth Davis confer their degrees virtually through an online video – promising them they would have their own commencement ceremony, in person and on campus, when the COVID-19 crisis allowed. And on Saturday, May 15, it all happened.

More than 350 graduates from the class of 2020 returned for the event, filing into the stadium at 1 p.m. as the brass quintet played Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance.”

“I am humbled by your understanding, patience and grace – and your resilience,” Davis said from the stage, which was decorated with flowers in memory of student James Campbell-Laing. “It’s an honor to recognize this with the in-person ceremony you requested, earned and deserve.”

Jaylon Goodwin ’20, president of the class of 2020, presented the Senior Class Gift – a check for more than $40,000 to the Furman United Scholarship Fund – followed by the airing of a special video tribute to last year’s graduates. The video acknowledged that students “were filled with disappointment, grief and uncertainty” after last year’s Commencement celebration was delayed.

Furman University || Class of 2020 Tribute from Furman University on Vimeo.

“But months later, on a night made special again, we celebrate a little louder – because of you, class of 2020,” the narrator said, over footage of Furman students at home, in caps and gowns, smiling and showing off diplomas, honoring graduation during the lockdown. “You flipped the script. You took seclusion and turned it into solidarity. You took trials and turned them into triumph. You took disappointment, and you turned it into sacrifice for the greater good.”

After the presentation of the General Excellence Medals, the Scholarship Cup and the Alester G. Furman Jr. and Janie Earle Furman Awards for Meritorious Teaching and Advising, Emily Rose Zeytoonjian ’20 rose to address her classmates.

“We should have been here a year ago, but how lucky we are that this university has deemed us worthy of a graduation, no matter the date,” she said in her student address. “The fact that we have all gathered here today proves that we are unstoppable survivors determined to finish this journey together.”

The Rev. Deb Richardson-Moore, author and retired pastor of Greenville’s Triune Mercy Center, received an honorary Doctorate in Divinity degree before delivering her Commencement address.

“I’m especially grateful for this doctorate,” Richardson-Moore quipped as she came to the podium. “Let me just say it cost me a lot less than my Master of Divinity.”

Her address began by acknowledging the challenges the 2020 graduates had faced.

“Quite frankly, you have been robbed of something, and it is appropriate to grieve that loss,” she said. “So the only real question as we emerge from this dismal year is: What next? What next? What are you going to do with that liberal arts degree?”

Her suggestion? “Anything,” she said. “Anything at all. For you have learned how to think, to reason, to research, to query, to question. You have had the incredible opportunity to take four years to look at the world as a whole, and to consider your place in it.”

The graduates’ choices are “wide, wide open,” she said. “But here’s the thing you will discover: It doesn’t matter so much the career or job you choose as the integrity and authenticity with which you operate in that career.”

With that, it was time for the class of 2020 to finally do in person what they had been unable to do last spring: walk across the stage at Paladin Stadium.

As Dean of Faculty Jeremy Cass called their names, the Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Liberal Arts, Bachelor of Music, Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts and Master of Science degree candidates received their diplomas and exchanged fist-bumps with their university’s president.

Then, back on the stadium field, purple portfolios in hand, they finally heard Davis repeat – in person – the words they had heard her say from their screens at home last May.

“I hereby confer upon each of you the appropriate degree, with all its rights and responsibilities,” she said. “Congratulations!”

After hearty applause, the president then added one more personal word to the graduates.

“This commencement, really, is just one more step in your journey of a lifetime of learning. At a minimum, I hope Furman has taught you how much more there is to learn along the way,” she said.

“May you continue to thrive, prosper and grow,” Davis concluded. “Good luck, and godspeed.”

The singing of the Alma Mater, a benediction and a postlude marked the official end of an unprecedented homecoming of sorts for the class of 2020, who exited Paladin Stadium to return to their new hometowns and the postcollegiate lives they began one year ago.

 

 

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