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Graduates stood with their Hey Day hats and canes as Penn president Amy Gutmann officially pronounced them seniors at the start of the ceremony.

Credit: Chase Sutton

Members of the Class of 2021 gathered for the University’s 265th Commencement ceremony on Monday morning, some online and some seated socially-distanced on Franklin Field.

The commencement ceremony took place on May 17 at 10 a.m., bringing the Class of 2021 together after more than a year of online learning and several pandemic-altered milestones in their Penn careers. Penn President Amy Gutmann was joined by commencement speaker and philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs at the in-person ceremony to mark the official conferring of degrees for the graduating class. 

Seniors who participated in Penn’s asymptomatic testing program this semester and who have not had housing or access to campus revoked because of a Student Campus Compact violation were eligible to attend the ceremony in person. All other graduating students as well as family and friends watched the ceremony online.

Videos from the families of the graduates and a performance by the University of Pennsylvania Band aired as members of the Class of 2021 arrived to the in-person ceremony. 

Departing Chair of the Board of Trustees David Cohen announced the beginning of the ceremony and 2021 College graduate Henry Platt performed the national anthem. University Chaplain Charles Howard led a prayer to congratulate members of the Class of 2021 on their accomplishments amid the obstacles they’ve faced during the pandemic.

“Each graduation is already a whirlwind of emotions: joy, excitement, grief, fear, pride, and gratitude,” Howard said. “Yet, who could deny how this graduation is very different for a class that is very different?”

In her opening remarks, Gutmann noted that members of the Class of 2021 could not yet graduate because she never declared them seniors on Hey Day — a Penn tradition that involves juniors wearing hats and carrying canes as they walk down Locust Walk to College Green — which was held virtually last year. She instructed the graduates who attended the ceremony in person to open the red bags that were placed under their seats and officially pronounced them seniors. 

Gutmann praised students for overcoming challenges and making sacrifices since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Learning online, masking up, remotely singing with Counterparts or playing with the Penn Band, marching for justice, [and] missing milestones so that others may enjoy more life,” Gutmann said. “We’re at the threshold of a bright future thanks to your everyday acts in solidarity with and for others.”

Provost Wendell Pritchett recognized graduating students who won senior class and leadership awards as well as those who earned academic honors. 

Gutmann conferred honorary degrees to this year’s eight recipients, which included Powell Jobs, Cohen and United States Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Pritchett then welcomed Powell Jobs, a 1985 College and Wharton graduate, who shared stories about embracing entrepreneurship and advocating for equity in education.

“Infuse your values into every part of what you do, and how you live,” Powell Jobs said. “Your values should be like your fingerprints: proof of where you have been and what you have touched.”

Pritchett welcomed the deans of each of the schools to confer degrees to members of the Class of 2021. The ceremony ended with a performance of “The Red and Blue” from a group of graduating students. 

Last year, COVID-19 led the University to cancel the traditional commencement ceremony for the Class of 2020 and replace it with a same-day virtual ceremony. Although Penn initially planned for the Class of 2020 to reunite at Franklin Field on May 22 and 23 for an in-person ceremony, the University further postponed the in-person event in March.

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