KINGSTON — The sendoff they deserved almost 18 months ago happened Friday for the University of Rhode Island’s class of 2020, complete with caps and gowns, diplomas and cheering family members.
The former students returned to the Kingston campus for a commencement that had been not canceled last year, but delayed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It was in March 2020 that seniors, including Jack Fulton, left URI for spring break, and the university’s campuses closed. Classes resumed online the following week, but any chance at an in-person goodbye would have to wait.
The pandemic, Fulton said, shifted the lives of the students in various ways.
“It delayed futures, brought unforeseen difficulties and it broke you down if you let it, but we didn’t,” Fulton, the student speaker for the ceremony, said. “Just like the anchor that represents the State of Rhode Island, we remained resilient and never gave up hope.”
It’s up to each graduate to reflect on their own growth as individuals during their time at URI, Fulton, a communications studies major, said.
“The personal growth that occurred for us at URI is something that can only be understood by one person: yourself,” he said.
Friday’s ceremonial event gave the former students a proper farewell – something the university had promised in May of 2020 and planned to deliver on later that fall. But a resurgence of COVID scuttled those plans.
Now, even with the Delta variant circulating, vaccination rates have reached the point where a gathering inside the Ryan Center could take place, albeit with the university’s indoor mask mandate still in force.
The graduate student commencement ceremony took place Friday morning, while the undergraduate event was in the evening. The events also were part of URI’s Alumni and Family Weekend.
Things have changed in some key ways since the class of 2020 last walked the campus at Kingston.
URI has a new president in Marc B. Parlange, who assumed the post after David M. Dooley retired in August.
Parlange said Friday’s ceremony honors the 3,333 undergraduates and 845 graduate recipients of the class of 2020.
“You, your parents and friends and professors are oh so deserving of this day, given all the obstacles you faced on your way to earning degrees,” Parlange said.
Parlange offered some statistics about the class of 2020: it includes 14 sets of twins and 130 members of the Armed Forces. Graduates range in age from 19 to 66.
Rhode Island’s governor, Daniel McKee, took office in March, after President Joe Biden tapped then Gov. Gina Raimondo to become secretary of the Department of Commerce, a Cabinet position.
“I’ve attended many of the games here in the Ryan Center,” McKee said. “I can hear the echo, ‘Rhody, Rhody, Rhody.’”
Several hundred students and their family members attended Friday’s ceremony, and the governor called the delayed commencement a unique experience.
“It’s still a celebration for each and every one of you,” McKee said. “Thank you. Thank you for facing the COVID-19 pandemic in the earliest stages and being resilient. Thank you for acclimating to the sudden changes in your life in what should have been a time of celebration. Thank you for never quitting and never giving up.”
The university ultimately welcomed its entire student body back to campus in late August, as vaccination rates among the students, faculty and staff surged.