Union honors Class of 2020 during virtual ceremony

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The College announced last month, following careful consideration and deep reflection, its traditional Commencement ceremony was postponed due to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the need for physical distancing. A new date for an in-person event has not been determined.

A collage of photos of the Class of 2020

Some of the Class of 2020

“Because of the global pandemic, this term was not the one any of us expected or wanted,” said Strom Thacker, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs. “But we will not let that stand in the way of celebrating all that you have accomplished, both individually and as a class.”

Before he conferred degrees, Harris offered brief remarks, saying he would save an extended message for the traditional commencement ceremony.

He shared a story of a recent conversation with a student from the Class of 2019 who had worked in a South African health clinic as a Minerva Fellow. When he asked her what aspects of her Union experience were helpful, her answer reminded him that the College’s vision statement - developing every student to lead with wisdom, empathy and courage, now and across multiple tomorrows – was not simply a statement in a strategic plan. It is a statement of both aspiration and fact.

“Empathy, which she learned in and out of the classroom, was critical to being effective with people and in a place with which she had no experience,” Harris said. “Courage and wisdom she developed when faculty encouraged her to pursue a double major and joint thesis in what at many places might have been dismissed as incongruous – neuroscience and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies.”

Harris also touched on the events of the past two weeks, saying students used what they had learned across the curriculum and Union College experience to “understand persistent and painful issues around race in America, and we were all confronted with just how much more progress Union and the rest of society must make in this area.”

The class received a surprise shout-out from Ben Schwartz ’03, an Emmy-award winning writer, comedian and actor. Best known as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein from “Parks and Recreation” and as the voice of “Sonic the Hedgehog,” Schwartz currently stars in the new Netflix series “Space Force.”

“I know these are unique times, and I know how badly you wish you could be on campus celebrating with friends,” Schwartz said. “But think about it this way. You avoided a lot of people doing Naked Nott runs with facemasks on, which sounds like a horror movie to me.”

A collage of photos of the Class of 2020

Some of the Class of 2020

He offered congratulations to the class for its accomplishments over the past four years, including “all the time studying, all the classes, all the papers and all the times you had to go home for a trimester break, when nobody else is home. It’s basically you and your parents, and you are like, ‘Is this high school again?’”

The virtual ceremony featured a slideshow of graduating seniors. Kara Leyden, a biology and sociology interdepartmental major from Glenmont, N.Y., was recognized as the valedictorian; the salutatorian is Jonathan Hanna, a computer science major from Phoenixville, Pa.

Before the virtual ceremony, each member of the class received by mail a special package featuring their diploma and assorted Union memorabilia, including a tumbler, pennant, bumper sticker and 3D figure of the Nott Memorial.

Also during the ceremony, Scott Kirkton, associate professor of biology, was announced as the winner of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Teaching. Leo Zaibert, professor of philosophy, was announced as the winner of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Research. The prizes were created by David I. Stillman ’72, Abbott Stillman ’69 and Allan Stillman in honor of their father and grandfather, Abraham Stillman. Both awards will be presented in person later.

The ceremony opened with a performance by Union’s Heavenly Voices Gospel Choir.

Other speakers included Robert Bertagna ‘85, chair of the Board of Trustees; Simon Bohn ‘20, Student Forum president; Mary K. Carroll, the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry and chair of the Faculty Executive Committee; Ruchi Raval ’20, student trustee; and Molly Wiener, class president.

To learn more about the Class of 2020, visit the website.