IOWA CITY — It opened with — among other bittersweet shots of the recently vacated University of Iowa campus — a particularly-poignant image of what had become the Hawkeye fall tradition of asking its thousands of new freshmen to stand shoulder to shoulder on the Kinnick Stadium field in the shape of an “I.”
Although the prerecorded commencement video that shared that snapshot was backdropped by the low hum of the traditional “Pomp and Circumstance” theme, it — as with many other rites this spring’s more than 5,400 UI graduates likely had anticipated since childhood — continued the upending of academic norms.
“We are all heartbroken that we can’t be together in person on this special day, and that you are not enjoying the grand celebration you deserve, surrounded by your peers, family, friends, and the faculty and staff who have cheered you along the way,” UI Provost Monsterrat Fuentes said in her recorded message for the virtual convocation Saturday of the university’s largest College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
Addressing up front and head on the inadequate and impersonal nature of the online ceremony, Fuentes praised the graduates for their resolve and their no-less-esteemed accomplishments.
“I am personally deeply disappointed that I will not be able to shake your hand as you walk across the stage and congratulate you in person,” she said. “But even if I can only do so virtually, it is no less a privilege and a joy for me to celebrate the dedicated endeavor, accomplishments, and unique qualities of the very fine members of our graduating class of 2020.”
The UI virtual commencement ceremonies over the weekend wrapped the amended graduation festivities for Iowa’s public universities — after Iowa State University and the University of Northern Iowa last weekend honored their undergraduate and graduate-level degree-earners with campus-specific versions of a virtual convocation.
The campuses held individual virtual commencements for different colleges and programs — as they normally would pre-COVID-19, which forced the campuses to move all in-person classes online mid-March and cancel most face-to-face meetings, activities and events, such as graduation.
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UI President Bruce Harreld and Board of Regents President Michael Richards opened the virtual ceremony for the largest college Saturday, sticking to traditional commendations and avoiding much mention of the novel circumstances that forced them to deliver their speeches in rooms by themselves.
“We are recognizing your college graduation this year in a very unique way,” Harreld said. “But our pride in your accomplishments remains as strong and bright as any Iowa commencement.”
The college’s student speaker — UI Student Government President Noel Mills — went deep on the challenges her class has faced and will face, however, by recounting her own personal struggles.
“I’d like to start off with a story, the story of my first experience at the University of Iowa,” she said. “It wasn’t for a campus visit, a football game or a trip to the Museum of Natural History. My first experience at Iowa was with the other kids in the pediatric oncology unit of the hospital.
“The day I found out I had cancer.”
UI physicians and nurses reassured her then by formulating a plan and executing it.
“They were not going to give up, and neither could I,” she said.
“The lesson learned through years of treatments and doctors visits at Iowa is the lesson that has carried me through to where I stand today. To be a Hawkeye is to not be overwhelmed by the obstacles ahead. But to find strength in the struggle.”
When the time came, Mills recalled, she was excited and inspired to attend “the university responsible for saving my life.”
And the lessons she’s learned while there have equipped her and her peers to navigate this unique and unprecedented time in history.
“The challenges of today require exactly what we bring to the table — resilience, creativity, compassion and fearlessness,” she said. “Climate change, social inequities, pandemics. What these challenges are made of is exactly what we have prepared for.”
But, she said, they must be willing to “answer the call.”
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“We have to take adversity not as reason to quit, but an opportunity to do even better. To find strength in the struggle,” she said. “So wherever you are in the world today, no matter what you’re facing or where you’re going, remember you’re a Hawkeye.
“You have been trained to overcome the unimaginable, to perform the remarkable.”
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