For the first time since 2019, Berea College celebrated commencement in person. The joyous day did not mark the end of the pandemic, but it did prove one thing about this group of graduates: they are resilient. They have succeeded despite adversity, and that is something we should celebrate.
In 2020 and 2021, we celebrated remotely as the graduates of those class years “walked” from a distance. I’m happy to say that 45 members of those classes accepted our invitation to come back and cross the stage this year. While we did what we had to during the height of the pandemic, virtual commencement ceremonies are just not the same. There’s something about the tradition, the regalia, the experience of personal interaction that cannot be sufficiently replicated online, try as we did. The two-year absence of ceremonies made this year’s commencement that much sweeter, even if we still had to wear our masks and avoid the traditional handshake.
We’ve learned a lot over the past two years.
We learned that though we had thought colleges are slow and resistant to change, in fact they are able to adapt much more nimbly than we had imagined thanks to modern technology. We learned something, too, about this generation of young people. They are more adaptive and resilient and more able than they’ve been given credit for. Generation Z has proven their critics wrong! They not only survived the pandemic, they succeeded in meeting all the challenges associated with continuing their academic progress! And now they are college graduates—a fact that carries with it all the hope of past years with an extra tinge of pride that they can, indeed, face difficult situations and come out successful.
In fact, our commencement speaker, Geoffrey Canada, made the point that the best of America is yet to come because of this next generation. Canada, author and creator of the Harlem Children’s Zone, which was replicated throughout the country when President Barack Obama created the Promise Neighborhoods Initiative, spoke of how famed suffragette Susan B. Anthony did not see women get the vote in her lifetime. But she predicted it would happen, and the next generation saw it through after her death. Whatever important goals our generation has not been able to accomplish, this already talented and intelligent group of graduates, steeled by surviving a global pandemic, will bring to fruition one day. Mr. Canada asked them to promise him that they would take up that challenge; from the platform I could see eager assent in 265 faces!
Likewise, the setbacks this generation will face will be overcome by the generation that follows them, and so the march of progress will continue as each new generation leaves the world a better place than they found it. That is always the hope of commencement, that these minds, full of fresh ideas and determination, will take on the task of creating a society shaped by values like the power of love over hate, human dignity and equality and peace with justice.
When the world appears bleak, or even seems to take a step backwards, I am reminded that commencement carries with it a unique hope for the future. I was SO proud to see the graduates of 2020, 2021, and 2022 come together again in person after a two-year hiatus. They gave all of us renewed hope and optimism. I hope you will join me in celebrating.