Shortly after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic in March 2020, Union and most other colleges and universities emptied their campuses and shifted to remote instruction.
The news was a jolt to seniors, who had looked forward to enjoying their final weeks with friends and classmates.
“It was so sudden and abrupt,” said Megan Lepore '20, a psychology major from Lexington, Mass. “I never envisioned my college career ending that way.”
The pandemic forced the postponement of the traditional Commencement ceremony. Instead, the College held a virtual event in which President David R. Harris conferred degrees on the 477 members of the class.
However, the College was committed to giving the class an in-person ceremony. No one was quite sure how students would feel about returning to campus a year after graduating. Yet more than 300 seniors, joined by family and friends, filled Hull (Library) Plaza Sunday to celebrate their Commencement.
“I’m so excited and grateful for the opportunity to have this ceremony,” said Lepore, a member of the women's crew team and a three-time selection to the Liberty League All-Academic Team.
After completing her studies last June, Lepore began working at Brandmark Studios, a full service boutique marketing agency in Connecticut founded by Betsy Modest Brand ’82. She came back to Schenectady Friday to reconnect with friends she had not seen since the pandemic began. Her parents and brother were on hand Sunday to see her walk across the stage.
“Some of my friends at other schools didn’t do anything this year. I feel pretty special that we were able to come back to celebrate this special milestone,” she said. “It’s a big moment for everybody, not just the students graduating, but the families and others that supported the students along the way.”
In his remarks, student speaker Jose Dolores Valdievieso recalled that unsettling moment when the College notified the campus community via email that classes were canceled due to the pandemic. He was in class giving a presentation on biomedical instrumentation.
“I looked across the room and every student was fixed on their phone,” said Valdievieso, a biomedical engineering major from Houston, Texas. “I knew something was wrong because even at my worst I at least get the occasional sympathetic head nod. As soon as class was over, everybody rushed out of the room. I don’t think we were truly prepared for what came next.”
Valdievieso praised the tenacity and resiliency of the class during those challenging times. He also shared his own struggles to succeed at Union. At one point, while back home in Houston, he considered not returning to campus.
“My mom just quietly listened to my rant, looked at me, and said ‘Hijo, y si te quedas aqui, lo arrepentiras por el resto de tu vida.’ She said, “Son, if you stay here, you will regret it for the rest of your life.”
He thanked those who helped him to thrive and shared his thoughts on why Union is such a special place. He now works as an analyst for Accenture’s Scientific Informatics Services in Orlando, Fla.
“When I was struggling, my family, friends, advisors and professors at Union reached out their hands, always seeing me with complete transparency and reminding me of my potential,” he said.
The featured speaker was Juju Chang, the Emmy Award-winning co-anchor of ABC News’ “Nightline.” A regular contributor to “Good Morning America” and “20/20,” Chang has for decades reported on major national and international news events, including terrorism, natural disasters and racial equity.
Chang praised the class for its perseverance during the pandemic. She said the events of the past 18 months produced countless heroes, including ICU nurses who risked their lives to benefit others. The pandemic also exposed a racial and socioeconomic divide. She cited the murder of George Floyd and the dramatic rise in violence against members of the AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) community.
“As we start looking at the pandemic through the rear-view mirror, I think we can start seeing it as a gigantic opportunity for radical empathy,” she said.
As a mother of three, she acknowledged the record rates of anxiety and depression faced by young people, and urged the class to focus on their well-being in order to flourish.
“I think it’s helpful to redefine success,” she said. “It’s not about how much money you make or how fancy a title you have, not if you are full of anxiety and unhappiness.”
She shared five tips: Savor and celebrate the small things. Practice gratitude. Find a hobby. Do good deeds. Seek community and connection.
“True compassion begins with yourself,” she said. “Be loving and kind to yourself. Stop beating yourself up and stop feeding your insecurity.”
Chang received an honorary doctorate of letters degree.
The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of letters to Patricia Hill Collins, a Distinguished University Professor Emerita in Sociology at the University of Maryland. She is a social theorist who has focused primarily on feminism and gender within the African-American community and the complexities of the intersections of those issues with race and class.
In his charge to the graduates, President Harris reflected on the challenges the class endured and the disruptions of their senior year. He was especially moved by a gift the class presented to him a year ago, a photo mosaic with a picture of each graduate and their signature.
“The class that ended its time on campus abruptly, the class that missed its senior spring, the class that missed its senior week, and the class that missed its commencement, was the class that presented me with a gift they made together,” he said. “The gift makes clear that this is not a group of individuals, it is a class.”
He encouraged graduates not to stop considering who they want to be, and to have the courage to act if they find themselves on the wrong path. He urged them to be open to unexpected opportunities and resilient in response to unexpected challenges.
“The support you provided one another over the past 15 months will be needed again as you face the speed bumps in the road of life,” he said.
Kara Leyden, an interdepartmental biology and sociology major from Glenmont, N.Y., is the valedictorian. She is in the Leadership in Medicine program.
The salutatorian is Jonathan Hanna, a computer science major from Phoenixville, Pa.
A video of the Commencement ceremony is available on the College's Facebook page.
Union hosted a Commencement ceremony for the more than 470 members of the Class of 2021 last Sunday.