Two years later, Class of 2020 undergraduate alumni reunite for ceremony, spirited celebrations

What inspired members of the Brown University Class of 2020 to return to College Hill, put on a cap and gown, and march down College Hill to the First Baptist Church in America to celebrate with classmates — 802 days after COVID-19 forced an abrupt campus departure?

Maybe it was a chance for one last meal at the Ratty, or the Blueno-themed picnic. Perhaps it was to hear dancehall icon Shaggy perform a medley of hits in a historic church. Or to march — finally — in the Brown procession, out through the Van Wickle Gates, symbolically marking the end of their academic journey.

The reasons were probably as varied as the 1,337 members of the Class of 2020 who returned to campus from May 27 to 29 for their own dedicated ceremonies during Commencement and Reunion Weekend 2022, two years after receiving their degrees virtually when the pandemic prevented in-person gatherings.

For most, it was the chance to reunite in-person and close the book on a campus experience that ended too soon.

“When we left during the pandemic, it felt like an incomplete book,” said class member Priyal Gupta. “This feels like the last chapter has finally been written.”

Gupta, who earned a bachelor’s degree with concentrations in applied mathematics and economics, works as an analyst at a consulting firm near Boston, but her parents flew in from India for the chance to celebrate her graduation in person. They were just a few of the graduates, friends and family who came back to Providence.

For Brown President Christina H. Paxson, the moments spent watching then-seniors leave campus in a rush in March 2020, amid the abrupt arrival of COVID-19 in Providence, are difficult to forget. As she welcomed the young alumni back during the weekend’s Undergraduate Class of 2020 Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 28, she recalled how painful those earlier moments were.

“I remember seeing clusters of students on the green, hugging and saying goodbye,” Paxson said. “There were some tears and some very real and understandable anxiety about the health of your families, how you would get home, your futures. There was just so much uncertainty.”

This weekend’s return was a much happier sight, she said. And the fact that so many 2020 graduates and guests traveled from across the nation and the globe to experience an in-person Commencement signified that the time the class spent at Brown was significant and impactful for each class member, she said.

“It was here that you opened your eyes and your hearts to new knowledge and new ways of knowing, with professors, with mentors,” Paxson said. “You honed your skills and found your passion as artists and entrepreneurs and athletes and scientists and writers and researchers and activists and more. It was here that you made friends who are among the best you ever had, and they may be among the best you ever will have. It was here that you created a strong community — both on this campus and in Providence. And it was here that you grew into the smart, thoughtful, creative, socially conscious, civic-minded and somewhat irreverent people who you are now.”

All of that deserves an in-person celebration, she told the graduates. Paxson encouraged them to reconnect with trusted friends while they were back home at Brown, to seek advice and perspective from their fellow graduates now and throughout their lives, and return many times to campus as active and engaged alumni.

“Tomorrow, you’ll march through the gates again as alumni of the great Class of 2020!” she said before “re-conferring” the degrees she’d conferred virtually in May 2020. “Brown is a place where you’ll always be welcomed and always find love.”

Turning talent into service

Among the weekend’s highlights was an honorary degree oration from pioneering songwriter and reggae superstar Orville “Shaggy” Burrell. Shaggy chronicled his journey from Rae Town, a small fishing village in Kingston, Jamaica, to the Flatbush neighborhood in Brooklyn, to two tours of duty in the Middle East as a U.S. Marine, to his music career as a chart-topping hitmaker.

While the G.I. Bill’s education benefit was a major motivator for enlisting in the Marines, the honorary degree he received at Brown marked his first college degree. But the military became his college, Shaggy said. “I felt like I belonged to something — an institution,” he told the graduates on Saturday. “Every time someone came up to me and said, ‘thank you for your service,’ I felt a sense of pride and accomplishment, as if I actually graduated.”

He recalled 18-hour weekend drives as he journeyed between his base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina to Brooklyn and back, all so he could record songs at a studio in New York. To make a name for himself as a Caribbean performing artist, he had to work 10 times harder and make music 10 times better, he said. A stern sit-down with godfather of soul James Brown as Shaggy toured after his early hits helped him connect his talent — the one thing nobody could ever take away, Brown told him — with the commitment to service he’d developed as a Marine.

“We’re all servants…and we’re all given the tools to perform our service — our talent,” he said. “We’re not here to achieve material things — our purpose is to inspire and change people’s lives… Every time I go on tour, there are 17 band members who come with me. That’s 17 mortgages, 17 school fees, electric bills, car payments — all because I sing these songs. Concession guys, riggers, security, drivers, janitors — they are all paying their bills because I decided to use my tool and serve.”

Shaggy urged the Class of 2020 graduates to do the same, building on the talents they honed and the knowledge they gathered over four years at Brown and the two since they earned their degrees: “I’m grateful that I was chosen to serve,” he said. “I look forward to your journeys in hopes that one day we’ll meet again and I’ll be able to say to you, ‘thank you for your service.’”

After his oration, Shaggy put his talent on full display, grabbing a mic and offering a medley of his hits, from “Boombastic,” to “Angel” to “It Wasn’t Me.” Class of 2020 graduate Hannah Kierszenbaum — who’d sung a rousing rendition of the national anthem earlier in the ceremony — joined at the mic, and Shaggy invited the audience to add their voices. The graduates, who’d greeted the musician earlier by chanting his name, clearly relished the opportunity to sing and shimmy along to the catchy refrains. Hands went up and overhead. It was a high-energy, exuberant mood and a clear contrast, at least for a moment, to the travails of the past two years.

Finding community, at Brown and beyond

By the time that COVID-19 derailed everyone’s plans for 2020, Sydney Lo and Dhruv Singh, the senior orators selected to address their classmates at what would have been that year’s Commencement and Reunion Weekend, had already started writing their remarks.

On Saturday, as they spoke to their peers two years later than planned, both were filled with emotion. Neither was shy about expressing their feelings in front of the crowd. In fact, connecting through vulnerability was a major theme of both speeches.

“To share our hearts with others is an act of vulnerability, and thus of courage,” said Lo, who earned a degree in literary arts and biology and just completed her first year of medical school at the University of Minnesota.

Both orators talked openly about the challenges they faced while undergraduates at Brown, as well as how they grew from those experiences. Lo faced immense personal loss during the summer between her first and second year, when her younger and only brother died suddenly in his sleep from a heart arrhythmia.

“When I came back to Brown the following fall, I knew I couldn’t grieve alone,” Lo said, describing how she found solace in the community of a University bereavement group.

During Singh’s first year at Brown, feeling “anchorless” and out of place, he prepared to transfer elsewhere. What ultimately stopped him, he said, was his involvement with the Brown Outdoor Leadership Training program, a backpacking trip for sophomores that focuses on developing student leadership skills. Through that experience, Singh said he found his people.

“I realized that what was missing my first year was not a lack of charisma or ability that made me inherently ill-suited to the freedom offered by Brown,” said Singh, who concentrated in international relations. “What I was starved of was a community where I felt supported, valued and loved. My BOLT family gave me a space to share myself with others. They showed me what I was looking for in the other communities I would find and build at Brown.”

Both speakers acknowledged the heartbreak shared by members of their class based on a long and growing set of challenges during their college years and those immediately thereafter: political upheaval and unrest, anxiety  and loss during the pandemic, violence and fear, a college experience ending in isolation, to name a few.

“We left campus, we left each other,” Lo said. “We ventured into a changed, hurting world. And now as we celebrate, we also hurt.”

Yet both urged their classmates to stay open to connection and to community, and to use the relationships they build to make a positive impact.

“Class of 2020, none of the magic happens without the people,” said Singh, who is now a speechwriter for Democratic National Committee chair Jaime Harrison. “That is the most important thing I have learned at Brown. Insist on finding your people wherever you are. Insist on showing up for those who count you among their people. Show up for those you might not even know. Push yourself to expand the boundaries of who counts as your people and what you define as your community.”

And as Lo noted, the class now has two communities with whom to work for change, and in the short term, celebrate during the weekend: their fellow 2020 graduates as well as the larger Brown alumni community. “Now we can all celebrate twice as hard!”

A weekend to reunite

Throughout the weekend, a number of events welcomed back Class of 2020 undergraduate alumni, while class members also joined 2022 graduates and alumni from other generations for happenings across campus.

On Friday evening, 2020 graduates ventured across campus to the Sharpe Refectory for One Last Meal at the Ratty, traditionally a signature Senior Week event at Brown’s largest dining hall, and many headed to the Campus Dance celebration afterward. On Saturday afternoon, they convened on Pembroke Field for a picnic lunch with a Blueno theme — a nod to the iconic and beloved blue bear sculpture that called campus home during their years at Brown. On Saturday night, members were invited to catch up with classmates during a Gigs on the Grass event featuring Class of 2020 bands and musicians.

Reuniting with the classmates they’d missed for two years was a theme throughout.

“Because we left so abruptly, it was hard to lose that community that you had for four years and, all of sudden, start to do this really hard pandemic by yourself,” said Catherine Ohrt, a public health concentrator who now lives in Washington, D.C. “Just to be able to see everyone this weekend was so worth it.”

Srini Cherukuri, a Chicago native who’s now earning an M.D. at Columbia, was ecstatic about the chance to return to campus to formally receive his biophysics degree: “I loved it — I loved seeing everybody back,” he said.  “Two years has never felt longer.”

He shared the day with his family and became nostalgic recalling how he felt seeing former classmates back on campus after two years. “It feels really good to see your friends fulfilling their dreams,” he said. “Every step on campus has its own sentimental value. You want to think about all those good times that you had on campus.”

And he laughed, revealing how much he enjoyed returning to eat at the Ratty. “I know it’s an unpopular opinion, but I missed the food,” he said. “Going back to the Ratty was great.”

Walking to the Blueno picnic with Cherukuri, friend and classmate Angela Luo felt a sense of closure: “The whole procession was lovely,” the economics and public health said. “The two student orators captured the essence of what we all are feeling. This has been a time to regroup and hear what everyone has been up to the last two years.”

Sophie Lélias, a public health concentrator who lives in Providence and works for a global medical technology company, agreed: “I think it was to get that final chapter closed,” she said, noting how much those close to her were anticipating it. “This was very big for my family.”

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