Class of 2020 Gets Long-Awaited Send-off
Speaker Victor J. Dzau (Hon.’20), National Academy of Medicine president: “Apathy is a luxury we simply can no longer afford”
Nearly a year and a half after receiving their diplomas, Boston University’s Class of 2020 finally donned their scarlet caps and gowns and were honored for their four years of work and studying—the COVID-postponed 147th Commencement was held on Nickerson Field Sunday afternoon.
“COVID robbed you of a traditional senior year,” speaker Victor J. Dzau (Hon.’20), president of the National Academy of Medicine, said in his Commencement address to the 1,818 Class of 2020 graduates who returned to campus for the long-awaited ceremony. They traveled from 46 states and represented 61 countries. “You have already demonstrated incredible resilience and fortitude,” Dzau said. “You have prevailed and are here today with each other.”
He noted that an atypical ceremony—coming as it did in October, not May—was fitting for the Class of 2020 since there is nothing typical about them. Their childhood was marked by 9/11, their adolescence defined by the 2008 global financial crisis, and now they enter adulthood during the greatest public health emergency in over a century. There will be even more crises and setbacks, Dzau said, and while painful, they can also present opportunities. “If we can view adversity in this way—as a chance to learn, to grow, and to emerge stronger and wiser than we ever thought possible—then we can face the future with confidence,” he told the approximately 7,500 grads and guests on Nickerson.
Dzau’s pioneering research in cardiovascular medicine is credited with helping millions around the world live longer, better lives. As a child he and his family fled communism in his home country of China during its civil war, and moved to Montreal. His research in cardiovascular medicine led to the development of lifesaving ACE inhibitors that treat hypertension and congestive heart failure and pioneered gene therapy for vascular disease. Now, as president of the National Academy of Medicine, he works to create a global system of quality, affordable healthcare and leads the academy’s response to COVID.
He shared what he’s learned, sprinkled with anecdotes from his own life: keep going, find your purpose in life, surround yourself with people who help you persevere (and be sure to return the favor), and keep caring about, and improving, the world.
Growing up an immigrant and a refugee, Dzau said, he saw firsthand instances of injustice, discrimination, and suffering, and he noted that the current pandemic has led to more of the same, specifically regarding access to COVID-19 vaccines. “Of the 6.2 billion doses of COVID vaccines administered worldwide, just 2 percent of people in low-income countries have been vaccinated—that’s unacceptable,” he said to applause. “We can’t end this pandemic anywhere until we end it everywhere. If we allow variants of the virus to keep emerging and spreading, we may even end up in a situation where the vaccines don’t protect us anymore.”
The National Academy of Medicine is working closely with the Global Preparedness Monitoring Board (COVAX), the global immunization program, and national leaders, including the Biden administration, to ensure equitable access to COVID vaccines, treatment, and testing. “Apathy is a luxury we simply can no longer afford, especially when we face big global challenges such as pandemics and climate change,” Dzau said. “We have to cooperate with each other—in our communities and across borders. We have to keep caring.”
It was a busy weekend on campus—in addition to Sunday’s All-University Commencement, individual schools and colleges held Class of 2020 recognition events (called convocations in past years), where the now-alumni had the traditional experience of hearing their names called and walking across the stage. The class also mingled with lots of fellow alums, as the University hosted its annual Alumni Weekend as well.
While the Class of 2020 received a virtual send-off in May 2020, when the state of the pandemic made large, in-person gatherings impossible, it wasn’t a substitute for the real thing. “It may have taken 17 months, but it is a pleasure to welcome to Nickerson Field the members of the Class of 2020 and your guests; you told us you wanted to return to campus, and you did,” BU President Robert A. Brown said in his greeting. “Your senior year was interrupted like no other, you were forced to move off campus and adapt to Zoom learning… You then moved on to your careers, all with COVID-19 raging. I could not be more proud of you…there has never been a class more deserving of a Commencement.”
Although COVID-19 restrictions were more relaxed than for last May’s Class of 2021 Commencement, University officials requested attendees be vaccinated and required masks be worn during indoor events. But many chose to wear masks on Nickerson Field, too. And unlike the 2021 graduation, where no guests were allowed, the Class of 2020 could have four guests.
For the first time in BU history, the Commencement student speaker—Macken Murphy (CAS’20)—was an alum. “It might feel, for many of you, that the sunset of your education was taken from you; I know none of you expected to graduate late from an online university,” he joked, going on to say that his classmates’ time in school taught them how to become better citizens. “Yes, we worked on our math and writing; we also reflected on our morals and values. Yes, we studied science; we also discovered the importance of service. Of course, we studied history—we also learned that we are living in it. Now, at last, it is time to concentrate on worthy goals, display our intelligence, and prove our character.”
Following his address, Dzau received an honorary Doctor of Science from Brown. Also receiving honorary degrees were Thomas R. Insel (CAS’72, MED’74), former director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Doctor of Science; David Satcher, 16th US Surgeon General, former Secretary for Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, and former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Doctor of Laws; and Mark Volpe, who recently stepped down as president and CEO of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Doctor of Humane Letters.
Also honored were the winners of the 2020 Metcalf Cup and Prize and Metcalf Awards for Excellence in Teaching, the University’s highest teaching awards. The Metcalf Cup and Prize went to Sarah Sherman-Stokes, a School of Law clinical associate professor of law, who is credited with helping make LAW’s Immigrants’ Rights & Human Trafficking Program nationally recognized. Seth Blumenthal (GRS’13), a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program senior lecturer, and Courtney Goto, a School of Theology associate professor of religious education, were the recipients of the Metcalf Awards.
“I think we’re all really excited to finally be having this moment of closure and to reunite with our friends, since a lot of us moved out of Boston,” Kylie Umehira (COM’20) said on her way into Nickerson Field.
“We’re reliving some of our glory days,” added her friend Becca Bucholz (COM’20). It had been a full year since the friends had been able to spend time together, so after the ceremony, they had a fancy dinner and champagne planned. “A lot of us are working, so it’s nice to pretend that we’re back” as students, she said. “It’s nice because now that we know what it’s like to leave, it makes being back all that more special.”
Alene Bouranova contributed reporting to this story.