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The Class of 2020's virtual commencement ceremony included appearances by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and John Legend.

Credit: Kylie Cooper

As the Penn community remains dispersed across the world, members of the Class of 2020 and their families gathered online for the University's 264th Commencement ceremony on Monday morning.

The virtual commencement, which aired live on May 18 at 11 a.m. EDT, marked the official conferring of degrees for the graduating class. Penn President Amy Gutmann was joined by commencement speaker and award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, as well as 1999 College graduate and Grammy-award winning musician John Legend, to congratulate the Class of 2020. 

Beginning with a performance by the University of Pennsylvania Marching Band, the ceremony continued with brief remarks from Gutmann, who praised students for overcoming the challenges the coronavirus pandemic has presented since the University shut down in March. Gutmann invited students to join her on a walk through campus, featuring videos of various locations from the Quad to Locust Walk. Gutmann highlighted monuments representative of prior graduating classes that persevered through tough times, such as the 1918 flu pandemic and World War II. 

“You have acted as one to save lives, to serve the common good,” Gutmann said. “Each of you has summoned deep reserves of compassion, of courage and creativity, to fight this pandemic.” 

The virtual ceremony also included a "Class of 2020 Tribute," which features clips from interviews with 12 graduates set to a montage of photos and videos encompassing the Class of 2020’s time on Penn's campus. 

Gutmann then conferred honorary degrees to eight individuals, including Adichie, retired Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Anthony Kennedy, and Perelman School of Medicine Emiretus Professor Stanley Plotkin, a physician involved in vaccine development.

“I’m most moved by the sacrifices that you’ve made, the sacrifices that you’ve had to make,” Adichie said to the Class of 2020 ahead of her commencement speech on Franklin Field next year. 

The event closed with a rendition of "The Red and the Blue," performed by graduating students involved in Penn's A Cappella Council with a surprise appearance by Legend, who also delivered Penn's 258th Commencement Address.

“I feel like everyone when they see John Legend in Penn gear [is] always super proud, so I was happy,” graduating College and Wharton senior Maria Curry said. 

“I honestly think it’s going to be super special that we’re going to have that video and that ceremony to watch for the next few decades,” graduating Wharton and Engineering senior Karim El Sewedy said. “It’s something that we’re always going to carry with us, which is something you don’t really get whenever you do have a regular graduation.” 

Due to coronavirus concerns, the University canceled the traditional commencement ceremony in March, and replaced it with a same-day virtual ceremony. The Class of 2020 will reunite at Franklin Field on May 22 and 23, 2021 for an in-person commencement ceremony.   

“A virtual commencement can’t make up what an in-person ceremony would have been,” El Sewedy said. “I think this came pretty close.”

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