Marc MorialOp-EdOpinion

MORIAL: Even While Physically Distant, 2020 Grads Find Ways to Celebrate and Inspire

“No one does big things by themselves. Right now, when people are scared, it’s easy to be cynical and say let me just look out for myself, or my family, or people who look or think or pray like me. But if we’re going to get through these difficult times; if we’re going to create a world where everybody has the opportunity to find a job, and afford college; if we’re going to save the environment and defeat future pandemics, then we’re going to have to do it together.” — Barack Obama, National High School Class of 2020 Commencement

Like proud fathers everywhere, I was looking forward to the high school graduation of my only son this spring. It’s a rite of passage not only for the young men and women making a transition into adulthood, but also the families who nurtured them along the way.

None of us could’ve imagined how commencement ceremonies would be derailed by a global pandemic that shut down schools and colleges and robbed graduating seniors of long-awaited rituals like proms and class trips.

My family planted a sign in our yard to show how proud we are of my son. But that march across the stage to receive a diploma, to shake the hand of the principal or the dean and to hear the exuberant cheers of friends and family, simply is not to be in 2020.

But the incredibly bold and creative ways America’s high school and college graduates have found to celebrate are among the most inspirational moments to emerge from this challenging time. Social media overflows with moving videos of “commencement for one” celebrations in families’ homes. A suburban New York high school will hold commencement at a drive-in theater, with graduates popping through their sunroofs to cheer and toss their caps. The vice principal will hand out diplomas with a six-foot retractable arm. High schools in Florida will hold a drive-thru graduation at Daytona International Speedway, with graduates driving across the finish line to accept their diplomas and take a victory lap.

One graduating senior in Los Angeles, Lincoln Debenham thought of a way to make graduation special for everyone: he asked President Barack Obama to deliver a national address. And President Obama obliged — not just for high schools, but colleges as well.

He was introduced for his high school commencement speech by Chicago Urban League Project Ready student Aniyah Fisher, who served as an intern at the Obama Foundation as a part of the Youth Job Corps Program and is headed to the University of Michigan in the fall.

I had the honor last week of addressing the 2020 graduates of the nation’s historically Black colleges and universities, along with President Obama, actor Kevin Hart, NBA stars and Vince Carter, and choreographer and National Urban League honoree Debbie Allen. The event, “Show Me Your Walk: HBCU Edition,” was a joyful celebration of pride and hope for the future. I reminded the graduates that they stand on the shoulders of the generations that have gone before. And they must be strong enough to lift up the generations that come after.

The members of the Class of 2020 will carry with them forever the lessons of graduating into a world beset by a pandemic and economic crisis. It can be easy to dismiss the familiar themes of commencement speeches as meaningless platitudes. But as President Obama told the HBCU graduates, this pandemic has torn back the curtain on the idea that many of the folks in charge know what they’re doing, and if the world’s going to get better, it’s going to be up to the class of 2020.

Morial is president of the National Urban League.

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