Resilience rewarded: Class of 2021 celebrates Commencement in person

Publication Date

It was a scene both inspiring and encouraging.

Under clear blue skies, more than 470 students in the Class of 2021 filled the picturesque Hull (Library) Plaza Sunday morning to celebrate Union’s 227th Commencement. Joined by hundreds of family and friends, the students reveled in an in-person outdoor ceremony that seemed unlikely just months ago.

“We survived COVID-19 as a class and here we are, finally graduating,” exclaimed student speaker Nimra Shabbir. “Congratulations everyone. I always knew our class was quite amazing.”

Graduates taking photos of one another

The ceremony was the College’s largest in-person gathering since late February 2020, when the campus community filled Memorial Chapel to celebrate the College’s founding. The next day, they crowded into Memorial Fieldhouse for the public launch of “Powering Union: The Campaign for Multiple Tomorrows.

Since then, the College persevered through more than a year of the pandemic. This included an aggressive testing program to control the spread; the College has administered nearly 75,000 COVID-19 tests to students, faculty and staff since August 2020.

Through the hard work and sacrifices of many, Union was able give its seniors an in-person ceremony. All graduates were required to follow appropriate health and safety measures in accordance with New York state guidance. This included proof of a negative COVID-19 test and/or a completed vaccination series (at least 14 days beyond the last vaccine), masking and physical distancing.

Due to limits on crowd size, each student was allowed two guests, and attendees were required to register in advance and to observe masking and social distancing guidelines.

The featured speaker was Sue J. Goldie ’84, a renowned physician, medical researcher and educator whose work has greatly influenced the field of public health.

Goldie reflected on her time at Union, an experience that not only provided her with an excellent education, but a place that gave her a sense of community and belonging and enough scaffolding to allow her to stumble and recover.

President Harris addresses graduates

President Harris addresses the Class of 2021

“I left with the confidence that comes with being surrounded by people that believe in you, and my journey would not have been possible otherwise,” said Goldie.

She is the Roger Irving Lee Professor of Public Health at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. At Harvard, she serves as director of both the Center for Health Decision Science and the Global Health Education and Learning Incubator.

Goldie’s research has focused on viruses of global health importance, cancer prevention, reproductive health and maternal mortality. In 2005, she received a $500,000 MacArthur Fellowship, known as a “genius grant,” in recognition of her work.

Goldie offered a series of lessons learned on her personal journey. She encouraged students to cherish and prioritize the people they love, and not be afraid to deviate from an expected pathway. When they find a destination of their choosing, they should pursue it without restraint.

“Be bold, take risks, and use every creative bone in your body to plow through the logistical constraints,” she said. “You are by far the most prepared graduating class in Union’s history to do just that.”

The class should expect to face opportunities throughout their career that mean putting a collective cause in front of individual goals. Goldie urged them to embrace these opportunities, because “they may lead to the most important work you will ever do.”

She cited the pandemic as just one example of a global challenge that has exposed the inequities in society. These inequities, she argued, have roots in structural factors, including racism, that have been embedded for decades. Other epidemics persist, including opioid addiction, gun violence and misinformation, complicated by the deep divisions within the country.

“Take on these challenges with courage and conviction,” she said. “You will need to lean forward, seek the truth, speak up and fight for what you believe in, but you will also need to find ways to listen – and even to empathize with – those whom you really disagree with. We need to find ways to recognize our common humanity. Whether you accept a leadership role, volunteer for public service or demonstrate leadership through your daily actions, you must step up.”

Sue J. Goldie '84

Sue J. Goldie '84

Goldie's full remarks.

Goldie received an honorary doctorate of science degree.

The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of science degree virtually to Geraldine Richmond, the presidential chair in science and professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon. She has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the undersecretary for science in the U.S. Department of Energy.

Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) delivered a special virtual message to the class.

In his charge to the graduates, President David R. Harris encouraged them to continue to discover who they want to be, and to be open to unexpected opportunities and resilient in response to unexpected challenges. He asked that they use their “time, talent and treasure” to enable future generations of Union students to thrive.

“Although you are graduating today, a piece of you will forever be here at Union College because you learned critical academic and life lessons here, you made lifelong friends and maybe even found partners and spouses here,” he said. “Far more of your life story has been written here than a four-year stay would suggest,” he said.

In his baccalaureate remarks Saturday, Harris reflected on the students entering Union in 2017 and his own arrival a year later, as the first Black president in Union’s storied history.

Nimra Shabbir was selected to be the student speaker at Commencement for the Class of 2021
Nimra Shabbir, student speaker at Commencement for the Class of 2021.

He recounted some of the pivotal events they witnessed together, including the murder of George Floyd, the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and of course, the global pandemic that turned their spring term as juniors fully remote, among other challenges.

“What these seismic unforeseen events – these unwelcome Union College Challenges, would teach us all, was that we have to become comfortable being uncomfortable. We had little to no choice. And that is just what we did.”

The student speaker, Nimra Shabbir, praised the class for its resiliency.

“This past year has taught me that no matter how much we plan things, life is still going to be uncertain,” said Shabbir, a political science major with a minor in philosophy who is from Islamabad, Pakistan. “We have to understand that every now and then there will be a bump on the road, but the ability to overcome these challenges with courage is what makes us successful in our life. It’s what makes us the Union College Class of 2021.”

The co-valedictorians are Chris Avanessian, Shea K. Delehaunty and Lisa C. Spagnuolo.

Co-salutatorians are Emma N. Cravo and Jennifer A. Mutch.

Also at Commencement, Strom Thacker, the Stephen J. and Diane K. Ciesinski Dean of Faculty and Vice President for Academic Affairs, announced the winners of the College’s top teaching awards. Nicole Theodosiou, associate professor of biology, is the winner of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Teaching. Mary K. Carroll, the Dwane W. Crichton Professor of Chemistry, and Ann M. Anderson, the Agnes S. MacDonald Professor of Mechanical Engineering, are co-winners of the Stillman Prize for Faculty Excellence in Research. The prizes will be presented at Convocation in September.

A video of the Commencement ceremony is available on the College's Facebook page.

The College will host a commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 at 10 a.m. on Sunday, June 20, on Hull Plaza. The ceremony will follow the protocols for the Class of 2021 event.

The featured speaker is Juju Chang, the Emmy Award-winning co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline.”

The traditional ceremony was postponed last year due to the. Instead, the College held a virtual event in which President Harris conferred degrees on the 477 members of the class.