The University of Notre Dame class of 2020 returned to campus Sunday (May 29) for an emotional and long-awaited Commencement Ceremony ─ two years after a virtual ceremony was held due to the coronavirus pandemic.
A Commencement Mass was celebrated prior to the graduation ceremony inside Notre Dame Stadium for the nearly 2,000 returning graduates and 7,400 proud parents, family members and friends.
“The fact that so many of you with busy lives and professional responsibilities came back to be here this weekend is a testament of how you are committed to be present to one another despite the challenges,” said President Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., during the Mass.
Charles and Jill Fischer Provost Emeritus Thomas G. Burish returned as emcee for the ceremony after retiring in July 2020. While the pandemic had greatly affected them all, he said, “none of us were defined by it.”
Burish said he asked returning graduates why they’d chosen to return to campus long after receiving their diplomas in the mail, and was particularly moved by an alumna who said returning for the ceremony brought about feelings of closure.
“I suspect [her] words capture why most of us are here this weekend,” Burish said. “To find closure, to celebrate and to be with people we love.”
Student body president Elizabeth Boyle offered a welcome and introduction of the valedictory address, as class salutatorian Love Osunnuga was unable to attend.
“We are finally back home,” Boyle said. “What a joy it is to be here together without masks, or 6 feet of distance or a computer screen between us.”
During her invocation, Boyle reminded graduates that while the moment had finally come for celebration, the challenge to be a force for good was as important now as ever. “In this time of war,” she said, “we pray that we will learn to disarm our hearts from the rhetoric of violence and hatred.”
Boyle included prayers for an end to violence around the world and communities in the United States.
“In a particularly somber way, we pray for the men, women and young children who are the innocent victims of the senseless shootings in New York and Texas. May we be the generation that says ‘no more’ to violence of any kind and that works to build a beloved community free from violence.”
Class valedictorian Brady Stiller called the months prior to the virtual ceremony in 2020 “some of the strangest of our lives,” and his remarks to his fellow graduates touched on the uniqueness of their experience.
Stiller received his bachelor’s degree in biology and theology. Since leaving Notre Dame, he has joined a life sciences consulting firm that specializes in market access strategy for oncology and rare disease therapeutics as a senior analyst and is the author of a forthcoming book.
“Even in the midst of these strange times, these past two years have also been marked by some of the most exciting and accomplished moments,” Stiller said. “Some of us have launched a promising career applying years of schooling and internship experiences. Some of us have gotten married and perhaps have already brought a new Notre Dame football fan in to the world, some of us may have gone to areas of need in our world to offer our gifts and presence to fellow humanity, others may have completed a master’s program and graduated before we even graduated.”
Stiller compared the class of 2020 to that of 1879, when a fire destroyed many buildings on campus, forcing administrators to send students home until the campus could be rebuilt.
“We share something more than a tragedy with the class of 1879,” Stiller said. “We share their legacy of hope.”
Times of crisis can evoke incredible opportunity, Stiller added. “Over the past two years we’ve been faced by countless temptations to shrink from danger, to give up on our dreams and to lose hope for our world in the face of conflict. But the best stories are those in which a great conflict arises, seemingly impossible to overcome, yet heroes rise up in the midst of danger at the opportunity.”
John F. Crowley, a Notre Dame alumnus, served as principal speaker during the ceremony. Crowley has been a voice for universal access to medicines for children, people living with rare and other life-threatening diseases and those living with disabilities.
In 1998, Crowley and his wife, Aileen, learned their then 15-month-old daughter Megan had a rare and fatal neuromuscular genetic disorder called Pompe disease. Their son Patrick would also be diagnosed with the disease — and the Crowleys were told it was unlikely either child would live more than a few years. The Crowleys’ tireless effort to develop treatments for the disease afflicting both of their children inspired the major motion picture “Extraordinary Measures.”
Crowley told graduates their mission to be a powerful force for good has never been more relevant.
“Good doesn’t just happen,” said Crowley. “Chance, nature, human nature, time and, as we have all seen again so painfully this past week, evil itself all conspire against doing good. If you want good things to happen for yourself, your family and for the world, you have to fight.”
Crowley, who received an honorary degree during the ceremony, encouraged graduates to ask themselves, “What would you fight for?” Drawing from his work in biotechnology, his faith, his family and his time as chairman of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, he offered his perspective on the traits essential to becoming a truly great leader.
“Try whenever you can to positively change one life, be forever an optimist, be a person of great faith, striving for something always bigger than yourself,” he said. Finally, he added, “the secret to great leadership and true success in life is to gain the wisdom to know why you are fighting.”
Crowley hoped to leave graduates with a call to action. “A call to fight forever in your lives ─ for what is right, for what is just and for what is so very needed ─ to be moral and enlightened leaders. To know as human beings that we are defined at our core by how we respond to hardship. To know the tenuousness of life. To do small things with great love and big things with great faith. To know that all we really have and all we really are pursuing is time ─ time with the people we love.”
Two years after the virtual ceremony in 2020, Father Jenkins conferred degrees, thanked graduates for their patience and reflected on what he told them then.
“I said then that you were graduating at a time of massive social, economic and public health challenges,” he said, and encouraged each graduate to fight through those challenges and make their story a tale of resilience and hope, friendship and solidarity, and “the kind of courage and persistence that conquers despair and disappointment.”
“Class of 2020,” Father Jenkins said, “I have seen how well you responded to that charge over the last two years.”
Well-versed in the lessons of patience and perseverance and together once again, the class of 2020 tossed their caps into the air and celebrated a commencement ceremony like no other.