"Because of your 'Nott Today COVID' attitude, because of your resiliency, because of your clear understanding that college and life are team sports, you will be known as the class that is not defined by a pandemic. You are the class that thrived despite it."

-Union President David R. Harris

'Nott Today COVID' Class of 2024 celebrated at Union’s 230th Commencement

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When Genevieve Goldstein ’24 arrived on campus in the fall of 2020 to begin her college journey, the nation was in the grips of the pandemic lockdown. Known as the “COVID Class,” Goldstein and the other first-year students faced a college experience vastly different from other generations.

They had to learn via some remote classes, wear masks, practice social distancing, avoid large gatherings and participate in regular medical testing.

“I knew it wasn’t going to be a normal college experience, but we had to make the most of it,” said Goldstein, an environmental policy major with a double minor in economics and classical civilization from Queens, N.Y.

“The word perseverance is a big part of our class,” said the first-generation student. “But we made it. Union and the people around me have helped me to grow. Union helped find my own path, which I’m really grateful for.”

Goldstein was among the 467 members of the Class of 2024 who were celebrated Sunday on Roger Hull Plaza during Union’s 230th commencement.

The featured speaker was Emmy Award-winning writer, comedian and actor Ben Schwartz '03. Schwartz is perhaps best-known as Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on the Amy Poehler sitcom “Parks and Recreation.” He also voices the title character in the “Sonic the Hedgehog” franchise.

Punctuating his message with an entertaining mix of humor, seriousness and charm, Schwartz shared with the class his own memories of Union, and the impact the College had on his life and career.

“When I was in school, Facebook, YouTube and the iPhone hadn’t been invented yet,” said Schwartz, an interdepartmental major in anthropology and psychology. “We lived off carbs, drove automobiles that ran on hazardous fuel, and without social media, we were forced to learn about each other in person, which was just as unhinged as it sounds. I have done a naked Nott run. I’ve written a 100-page senior thesis that I haven’t looked at since I handed it in. And I helped invent a game called triforce beer pong, which incorporated three tables we ‘borrowed’ from the Reamer Campus Center and several cases of terrible beer, which was all we could afford.

Ben Schwartz '03

Ben Schwartz '03

Union College Commencement 2024

“I tell you all this to say… I have been exactly where you are now. And I know all of the experiences leading up to this ceremony are different and unique to each one of you. But this moment right here, where the entire class is sitting next to each other, minutes away from ending a big chapter of your lives - I remember this exact moment. I remember being overwhelmed with excitement… and fear. Excited that I made it to the end of another finish line and fearful that I had no idea where the next finish line was being placed.”

Noting that he initially planned to offer three simple guidelines to the class, he instead expanded it to 12 (or his dodecagon) when he learned his speech had to be 15-20 minutes long. The first, he said, is to be kind to others.

“I know what you’re thinking, Ben; we learned this in kindergarten. Is this really how you are going to start off your guideline dodecagon? I’m starting the whole thing off with being kind to others because it is just as important now as it was when we were three. There’s a saying that a lot of people use in the entertainment business but that I’ve always hated. Be kind to every assistant because you never know when they are going to be your boss. That’s terrible advice. You should be kind to people because that’s the right thing to do. It’s tough out there for most of us. If you can help even the slightest bit by being kind, please do it. You will never regret it.”

He urged the graduates to work hard, be kind to themselves, take risks and fail.

“While writing this speech, I found out a TV show I’ve been working on for years isn’t going to get made,” he said. “That is one of eight different projects I have sold that never got put into production. I’ve failed over and over again on stage, in writing and in acting. Failing feels terrible when it happens, but it’s necessary.”

Also, don’t forget to moisturize.

“This one is way more important than you think,” he said. “Put some moisturizer with SPF on your face every morning. It will keep your skin looking way better. Remember, I’m over a century old and my skin isn’t totally drooping off yet.”

To be successful, students should try to do the thing you want to do, listen, and keep in touch with friends and family.

“You can always do what my Union friends and I did right after we graduated,” he said. “We began an email chain with a bunch of us on it. The subject line of the email was, “I’m home,” and we have kept this email chain together for 21 years… same subject heading. Thousands of emails. Sometimes we go weeks without saying anything, sometimes we talk daily. Either way, it’s nice to have. The older you get, the more you'll cherish the relationships with people who have known and guided you through different stages of life.”

Union President David R. Harris

Union President David R. Harris

One of Union's newest alumnae

Finally, Schwartz encouraged the soon-to-be alums to live in the moment.

“For a long time, I was terrible at this,” he said. “I would never take in what was actually happening in front of me. And because of this, I missed out on so much fun. So, live in the moment, be grateful for the good. You’ll get to the future soon enough. What’s funny is one of the most meaningful times I really abided by this was at my commencement in 2003. I knew how much I would miss Union. So, I really took the time to take in my surroundings. My friends. This campus. My broken-down house on Union Street where termites were king. I let myself enjoy it all.”

Before he left, Schwartz had a special message for the local deli clerk whom he duped into selling him beer for three years with a fake ID until he turned 21.

“I remember the sadness in your eyes when you realized I wasn’t really 34-year-old Stanley Tooply from New Jersey,” he said. “I didn’t mean to lie to you every weekend for three years. Things haven’t been the same between us since then, so I’m sorry, but thank you for the beer.”

Schwartz received an honorary doctorate of fine arts degree.

The College also awarded an honorary doctorate of law degree to Mark A. Graber, one of the leading scholars in the country on constitutional law and politics. Graber began his career in academia at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1993. He joined the University of Maryland School of Law as an adjunct professor in 2002 and became a full professor in 2003. In 2015, he was appointed the Jacob A. France Professor of Constitutionalism and, in 2016, was honored as a Regents Professor, a prestigious title held by only seven individuals in the history of the University System of Maryland, a position which he still holds today.

Graber has authored more than 10 books, including “Rethinking Abortion” and “Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil.”

He was nominated for the honorary degree by Brad Hays, associate professor of political science. Graber was a mentor to Hays and the chair of his dissertation committee in graduate school.

In her remarks, the student speaker, Marcela Quiroga Vargas ’24, reminded her classmates of the challenges they faced during the early part of their college experience.

“Finals week of winter 2022, we finally let go of the masks,” said Vargas, a quantitative economics major with a minor in financial and actuarial mathematics from Cochabamba, Bolivia.

“Finally, we could all see our true selves and what we had come through.”

Borrowing a term coined by statistician and essayist Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Vargas called the Class of 2024 antifragile, able to withstand challenges and thrive in the face of chaos and uncertainty.

Student speaker Marcela Quiroga Vargas '24

Student speaker Marcela Quiroga Vargas '24

Nott head

“As we prepare to embark on the next phase of our lives, let us carry this spirit of antifragility with us,” she said. “Let us embrace the unknown with courage and confidence, knowing that we have the strength and resilience to overcome whatever challenges may come our way. We stand on the threshold of the future. Let us embrace the unknown with determination. For we are not just resilient. We are antifragile.”

In his charge to the graduates, President David R. Harris praised the graduating class for their courage and resiliency.

“You are the class that helped Union bounce back from COVID,” Harris said. “You will forever be known as the COVID Class, the class that selected Union and matriculated at the height of the pandemic. Because of your 'Nott Today COVID' attitude, because of your resiliency, because of your clear understanding that college and life are team sports, you will be known as the class that is not defined by a pandemic. You are the class that thrived despite it."

Seven members of the Class of 2024 received special recognition during the ceremony.

Alexandra Nicolaus of Ballston Spa, N.Y., a biomedical engineering major with minors in electrical engineering and mathematics; and Mayah Teplitskiy of Queens, a mathematics major, shared the distinction of valedictorian. Both graduate with a perfect 4.0 grade point average.

Five students earned the distinction of salutatorian as a result of achieving the second highest grade point average in the class: Elaine Fryer of Falmouth, Mass., a dual political science and sociology major with a minor in French; Charles McVicker of Dorset, Vt., a Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies major; Grace Nicol of Gloucester, England, a biochemistry major with a minor in psychology; Meghan Piser of Latham, N.Y., a biology major with minors in Spanish and psychology; and Grace Stearns of Wolcott, Conn., a dual major in political science and sociology with a minor in French.

The celebration opened with remarks from Stacie Raucci, College marshal and the Frank Bailey Professor of Classics. Julie Greifer Swidler ’79, chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, offered welcoming remarks.

Following “Ode to Old Union," the ceremony concluded with a performance by Thomas Raimo ’24 and the Union College Japanese Drumming and Global Fusion Band of “Fight the Dragons” from the Broadway show, “Big Fish.”

Lean more about the Class of 2024.