Senior commencement postponed, ensuring the class of 2020 is celebrated

The Greek Bowl, where Occidental College senior commencement ceremonies typically take place. Sarah Hofmann/The Occidental

President Jonathan Veitch announced April 3 that the class of 2020 senior commencement — originally scheduled for May 17 at the Remsen Bird Hillside Theater on campus — was postponed until further notice due to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to an April 28 email Veitch sent to the class of 2020, the college will instead host a virtual celebration on an undetermined day in June and will send graduates a box of graduation-related items, including diplomas, caps and stoles, to recognize cultural graduations and academic achievement. There will be an in-person graduation in Spring 2021, according to the email.

In his email to the student body April 3, Veitch said commencement marks a huge accomplishment for seniors; it is a day when their academic and personal achievements at Occidental are celebrated. Due to this unprecedented postponement, the administration prioritized input from the senior class in the decision-making process, according to former Associated Students of Occidental College (ASOC) president Nina Srdić Hadži-Nešić. Veitch sent out a student commencement survey April 7, and 64 percent of the senior class responded, according to an April 16 email to seniors in which Veitch shared the survey’s results. Students were asked to rank the importance of each aspect of commencement, ranging from “throwing graduation caps in the air” to “shaking the president’s hand” to “cultural graduations,” senior senator Hope Fowler said. The survey also inquired about seniors’ feelings toward a virtual commencement, a regional commencement and a traditional Hillside commencement at a later date; about 70 percent of seniors believe that a Hillside commencement is important, according to the survey’s results.

“I really want to amplify and thank all those individual voices of seniors who play a crucial role in shaping this,” Srdić Hadži-Nešić said.

Malvika Khanna (senior) said she prefers the idea of an in-person celebration separate from the class of 2021.

“Not because we don’t love [the class of 2021], but because the class of 2020 is full of some really wonderful souls and I believe they all deserve the spotlight that day,” Khanna said via email.

The traditional Occidental commencement weekend involves more than one ceremony. The days leading up to commencement are filled with an athlete recognition, a senior brunch and cultural graduations. Cultural graduations are vital to the Occidental community, with more than half of the senior class ranking them as “important” or “very important,” according to the survey’s results. Involving an alumni speaker, traditional food and a unique stole, cultural graduations celebrate the traditions and practices of all students, according to Director of the Intercultural Community Center Christopher Arguedas.

“Underrepresented students have achieved a milestone in their lives, despite the obstacles they often face along the way,” Arguedas said via email. “As a result, we take time to not only name this dynamic, but celebrate the tenacity, hard work and achievement of these groups, who encourage us to become more equitable and just, much like they will continue to do as graduates of the college.”

It is important to note that seniors have a lot more on their mind than the postponement of the commencement, Fowler said. The last semester of college is typically occupied by perfecting LinkedIn accounts, Handshake profiles and job hunting, JT Tinsley (senior) said. There is a lot of financial uncertainty for the class of 2020, according to Fowler, and a desire for more communication from the administration.

“We weren’t expecting the onset of adult life so quickly, so I think most people who don’t have the privilege of their parents paying for their full education are more so worried about getting money back right now,” Fowler said.

Srdić Hadži-Nešić said it was important to ASOC that the senior class was able to celebrate at an in-person commencement. They have recognized that a commencement at a later date will cause financial stress on some seniors and are working to ensure access for all, according to Fowler. ASOC has repurposed some of their funds to help high-need students and their families attend and are advocating for travel compensation, Srdić Hadži-Nešić said.

This past year, the Occidental community experienced the tragic losses of Ilah Richardson (first year) and Jaden Burris (sophomore). The events that were being planned to honor Richardson and Burris on campus can no longer be realized this semester, according to Tinsley. This leaves little room for seniors, and the Occidental community at large, to heal, Fowler said.

But Tinsley emphasized the strength of the class of 2020.

“We have dealt with so much that nothing can really faze us. We’ve gone through a lot, so this is not going to stop us either,” Tinsley said. “It’s just another hurdle. It’s a marathon, not a race.”

There is a lot of love in the class of 2020, according to Khanna, and the college wants to celebrate this, Srdić Hadži-Nešić said.

“I love the class of 2020. Y’all have inspired me to become the most genuine version of myself possible, and I cannot thank you enough for providing this incredible space. This class feels like a warm hug,” Khanna said via email. “It sucks that we’ve had to go through this really difficult year full of loss, but if there’s any group of people capable of overcoming these challenges and thriving, it’s us. #IoTriumphe”