Amherst College Class of 2020 graduates virtually

  • Amherst College President Biddy Martin speaks during the school's virtual commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 31, 2020. —SCREENSHOT/AMHERST COLLEGE

  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg speaks during Amherst College's virtual commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 31, 2020. —SCREENSHOT/AMHERST COLLEGE

  • An animated video plays during Amherst College's virtual commencement ceremony on Sunday, May 31, 2020. —SCREENSHOT/AMHERST COLLEGE

Staff Writer
Published: 5/31/2020 7:08:27 PM

AMHERST — Pre-recorded messages and photos from over the years greeted Amherst College students and their loved ones as they logged online to “attend” the school’s virtual, pandemic-era commencement ceremony.

“Good morning, good afternoon, good evening — and soon, for some of you, good night,” college President Biddy Martin said in greeting. “I wish I could say, ‘I’m glad to see you.’ But in fact I can’t see anyone.”

As graduating seniors across the country finish their studies, many are taking part in similar online graduations. Several weeks ago, for example, the University of Massachusetts Amherst streamed a bell-ringing on Facebook, followed by a broadcast commencement featuring messages from politicians, Ben Affleck, and Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

Amherst College has a decades-old tradition of the college president and a senior speaker addressing the audience. But on Sunday, the college also heard from Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who noted the students had completed their educations in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The eerie weeks tested you and your teachers greatly, and you rose to the challenge admirably,” Ginsburg said. “Having carried on undaunted, you should be confident about your capacity to grapple with whatever life brings your way.”

The troubling times were, of course, a frequent topic for the speakers.

“This is definitely not what we wanted and definitely not what we expected, but I’m really glad to be celebrating this moment with y’all today,” said Stanley Oscar Dunwell III, a senior biology major chosen by his class as the student speaker.

Oscar Dunwell said that the class had begun school at Amherst shortly before the “spicy” 2016 election. The years at the school had given the class the skills to overcome many obstacles, he said.

“Do what you have to do to lean into each other, but do not forget to lean into yours,” Oscan Dunwell said. “Because Amherst gave us the power to overcome it all.”

The graduation ceremony came not only after a pandemic that ended the semester early, but also during a weekend of uprisings across the country in response to white police and civilians killing black people in Minnesota, Georgia, Kentucky and elsewhere.

Over the weekend, there were protests locally and across the nation.

In her speech, Martin recognized the discrimination some Class of 2020 students at Amherst have felt over the last four years: international students from Muslim-majority countries concerned about being unable to return to the United States; undocumented students living with the possibility of deportation; and students of color experiencing “overt avowals of white supremacy by those who feel they’ve been given license by the statements of our president.”

Martin decried the spread of misinformation and attacks on science and expertise. She also noted the recent police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in Minneapolis and Louisville, Ky., respectively.

“We have to work really hard to be truthful with ourselves, as well as with others, to name what we’re seeing and what we know in order to restore the sanity that comes from a shared reality,” she said. “We’ve got to work together to restore American ideals to their proper place.”

As the speeches ended, there was no calling of names so typical of graduations, no procession across the stage to receive diplomas. Instead, an animated short film showed purple mammoths — the college’s mascot — throwing their caps into the air, which formed into a heart with the message: “Congratulations Class of 2020.” “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background.

To end, a video played of the quad on campus, panning over the grounds where lawn signs had been placed with the first names of the graduating class.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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