Howard University (HU) honored its 2020 graduates with an online virtual ceremony — the only option given the cancellation of the more routine commencement services due to recent restrictions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
President Wayne A.I. Frederick led the Conferring of Degrees ceremony on Saturday as an alternative to the originally scheduled program — the first time in the university’s 153-year history that students could not graduate in person.
Realizing that the virtual recognition pales in comparison to the real thing, Frederick invited current graduates to attend next year’s commencement during Mother’s Day weekend.
“Nothing can recreate the long walk on the yard,” Frederick said. “The Class of 2020 has shown perseverance and grit during a global time of uncertainty and their unwavering commitment to stand Bison strong demonstrates that their newly-earned status as alumni is well-deserved.”
HU awarded 1,358 degrees, including 153 master’s degrees, 86 doctorates and 26 certificates. Among the class, 46 percent of the graduates earned degrees from the College of Arts and Sciences, followed by the School of Business at 21 percent and the School of Communications at 13 percent.
The university says the majority of their graduates hail from Maryland, New York, Georgia and California in the U.S. with international students coming predominantly from Jamaica, Nigeria, Nepal, and Trinidad and Tobago.
In Frederick’s speech addressing the graduates, he noted the hardships many have endured.
“For many of you, there was no silver spoon, yet you pressed forward to blaze a path for yourself that perhaps no one in your circle has ever seen or dared to pursue,” he said.
Frederick contended that Howard has earned a reputation as a mecca of opportunity for those not born into privilege with nearly half of the university’s undergraduate population being Pell-grant eligible. Just last year, U.S. News & World Report recognized HU as the top private university in the nation in the social mobility category.
And while Frederick says entering the job market during a pandemic won’t be easy he believes this year’s graduates remain up for the task.
“Class of 2020, you are not unfamiliar with struggle or adversity,” he said. “You have lived long enough to see the effects of the great recession, the trauma of gun violence, over-policing and the ever-advancing consequences of climate change.”
“We cannot ignore the crisis of this moment, yet we must not let it define us. The disruption and dislocation to entire industries and the economy mean further grit and creativity will be demanded of you to make a way forward.”
Job Opportunities a Major Concern
Anxiety and uncertainty, which have escalated amid the continuing coronavirus pandemic have resulted in millions of layoffs and business closings worldwide. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates more than 20.5 million people lost their jobs in April bringing unemployment claims to 14.7 percent — the highest since the Great Depression.
Economists predict America’s unemployment rate will double by summer. And in a newly-released report by the University of Tennessee, research suggests that should a recession occur, young workers and new grads will be hit the hardest.
“Younger workers typically have more trouble finding and maintaining employment in a recession.”
For many 2020 graduates, their hopes of securing their first jobs remain on hold as companies around the U.S. country have initiated hiring freezes, canceled internships and either furloughed workers or fired them.
Additionally, as the report states, a sharp economic downturn not only impacts recent graduates’ wallets today but their prospects for future long-term health and earnings.
“People trying to enter the labor market during a recession can go longer without employer-provided health coverage, potentially leaving both their physical and financial well-being at greater risk,” the report said.
Virtual Ceremonies Continue for Now
To offset anxiety and to bolster encouragement among today’s graduates, nationally known figures have ramped up efforts to cheer on the class of 2020, albeit virtually.
Former President Barack Obama will deliver a televised commencement address during an hour-long event that will also feature LeBron James and Malala Yousafzai among others. ABC, CBS, Fox and NBC will simultaneously air the special on Saturday, May 16 at 8 p.m.
Obama will also be the honorary guest of The National HBCU Commencement Celebration representing more than 24,000 students and 75 HBCUs with celebrities including Kevin Hart, Wyclef Jean, Melody Hobson and Omari Hardwick scheduled to also make appearances. Additionally, there’ll be musical performances, school presentations and a Black Greek showcase. Presented by CHASE the event will be live-streamed by ESSENCE studios on Saturday, May 16 at 2 p.m.
Dr. Michael J. Sorrell, president of Paul Quinn College in Dallas, will spearhead the event and says it’s especially important to have a virtual ceremony for HBCU grads.
“We want students to know that we saw them, that we heard them, that we love them and that while we could not give them the moment for which we had, we still found a way to give them a special moment,” he said.