fb-pixelAt UMass Amherst, an unusual commencement - The Boston Globe Skip to main content

At UMass Amherst, an unusual commencement

Alumni and celebrities congratulated the graduating class during the UMass Amherst 2020 online commencement ceremony.UMass Amherst

The global pandemic may have forced the cancellation of its commencement ceremony, but the University of Massachusetts Amherst honored the Class of 2020 with a virtual celebration Friday filled with all the spirit and pride reserved for graduation day.

In a 19-minute video streamed online , UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy and Marty Meehan, president of the UMass system, were joined by Hollywood stars, New England Patriots players, elected officials, and accomplished alumni in the university’s 150th celebration of its graduates.

Student musicians played the school’s fight song, speaker Grace Jung reflected on the challenges she and her classmates have faced, and luminaries from many fields offered advice on the days ahead.


Student speaker Grace Jung spoke from her home in Wakefield during the UMass Amherst 2020 online commencement ceremony.UMass Amherst

“I don’t think any of us expected to be where we are right now, whether its on our couches, in our childhood rooms, or where I personally spent most of my quarantine, the kitchen,” Jung, a biochemistry major, said breaking into a smile from her home in Wakefield. “We remain resilient and hopeful during this challenging curve in our paths.”

Governor Charlie Baker, speaking from what appeared to be his State House office, saluted the Class of 2020′s perseverance “in the face of fear and doubt.”

“Make good choices, make good friends,” Baker advised.

New England Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman offered words of encouragement to the graduating class.UMass Amherst

Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman told graduates, “If we all stick together, we’re going to come out of this whole thing stronger.”

“You did it!” gushed Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty. “Go chase your dreams and be great!”

Actor Ben Affleck, a Cambridge native, rattled off a list of tips: “Be honest. Be accountable. Help people. Stand up for what’s right. When you’re wrong, own it and apologize. Forgive others. Forgive yourself. Be grateful. Have empathy. Know your worth.”

Former US secretary of state John F. Kerry said, “We’ve been through some tough months, and we have a difficult road ahead of us, but one thing I know for certain: you all have the tools, the energy, and the enthusiasm to bring us back from the brink and to make things better. And I’m confident you’re going to do that.”


Actress Rachel Dratch gave advice to the graduating class during the ceremony.UMass Amherst

Rachel Dratch, a former “Saturday Night Live” cast member who grew up in Lexington, told students in her best Boston accent, “You’re all going fah. You’re all going to the stahs, as far as I’m concerned.”

The Class of 2020′s final semester has been dominated by the coronavirus response. On March 11, the entire University of Massachusetts system announced that it would shift to online classes. The flagship campus was later closed and most students were sent home.

The university plans to hold a more traditional ceremony for graduates when it is safe to do so. Meanwhile, the university said it will honor graduates of its campuses in Boston, Dartmouth, Lowell, and Worcester with similar online celebrations later this month.

To address graduates’ challenging final semester, administrators recruited a speaker who has made positivity his entire brand: John Jacobs, a 1990 graduate of the university who went on to cofound the Life is Good clothing company.

Alumnus John Jacobs, cofounder of Life is Good, speaks to UMass graduates during the online commencement.UMass Amherst

“I know it hasn’t been easy this year, but the resilience you’ve shown — that’s going to serve you well in the long haul,” Jacobs told graduates. He spoke of his uncertainty when he and his brother launched their company. “If you’re feeling a little lost right now, we did too. The only way we learned was to try, and stumble, and adjust as we went along.”


Graduating senior Tim Scalona, 21, of Wilmington, watched the video with three of his fraternity brothers, with whom he’s been quarantining. They turned the event into a mini-graduation party, he said.

“I was impressed by the amount of speakers that were brought into it,” Scalona said in a phone interview. “There were so many Patriots players that were speaking, alumni of UMass that I had no idea were UMass alumni.”

Scalona enjoyed sharing the moment with friends, he said, but it didn’t really feel like graduation.

“It felt like a shadow of what could have or should have happened,” he said. “It felt more conciliatory … but I think they made the best out of a bad situation.”

Another graduate, Brian Choquet, 21, of Bellingham, said he didn’t watch the video, and he didn’t know anyone who was planning to view it live. If he hears the video is good, he can always watch it later, he said.

“I feel like graduation is more for seeing your friends and having a final goodbye,” he said. “I wouldn’t go to it just to listen to talking heads speaking about the same stuff I’ve heard before.”

The UMass Amherst 2020 online commencement ceremony. UMass Amherst

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him @jeremycfox.