Boston University students celebrated graduation as well as a kind of reunion as the university held its first in-person commencement since the start of the pandemic.
Undergraduate students filled Nickerson Field Sunday afternoon wearing masks but sitting shoulder-to-shoulder and gathering en mass for the first time in many months.
“For students here this is very meaningful,” said computer science major Israel Ramirez, 21, as students climbed onto the empty stage in celebration after the formal proceedings had ended. “This is the first sign of liveliness and [of] going back to normal.”
Yet for all the joyful energy of the graduates, the ceremony took on a somber tone at times, as speakers reflected on education and lives disrupted in the past year.
“In this past year you have all weathered unprecedented challenge,” congresswoman Ayanna Pressley told students in her keynote address. “COVID-19 has introduced brand new challenges while worsening existing hardship and inequity. It has strained our ties to one another but at the same time made clear the vital importance of community, and simple pleasures and joys.”
Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat who enrolled at Boston University in 1992 but withdrew after two years to help support her mother, was given a standing ovation even before she spoke.
“Boston changed my life. Boston University changed my life,” she said, recounting how an unpaid internship in the office of then-congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II during college led to a job there — and eventually her election to the very same seat.
She urged the roughly 2,800 graduates gathered to reflect on their ups and downs at the university, as well as experiences with this pandemic year.
“Now, I imagine many of you may be compelled and may feel an urgent desire to move on as quickly as possible from this pandemic, to put the pain and the hardship behind you, to not look back. But not so fast.
“There’s much to be said for pausing, for taking a breath, to think and to reflect.”
Pressley picked up on the theme of the student speaker, public relations major Archelle Thelemaque, who also talked of the importance of taking a breath.
“I would be remiss if I did not take just a moment of my time to honor those who do not breathe with us today, those who the institutions in place — justice systems in place to protect — have failed and who now we have learned to mourn. Those whose lives were claimed by a global pandemic that nature created by a lack of nurture perpetuates.”
Earlier in the speech, Thelemaque also referenced Erin Edwards, a Boston University communications student who had been on track to graduate this year when she was killed in a family tragedy in Georgia.
“For those who do not breathe with us here today, we honor you and remember you by keeping the dream alive,” she said.
BU also held an event on the field to award advanced degrees Sunday morning, with Moderna cofounder Noubar Afeyan as the keynote speaker. Catherine D’Amato, president of the Greater Boston Food Bank, was also honored in the afternoon event.
In the fall, an in-person commencement will be held for those students whose graduation ceremonies were scuttled by the pandemic a year ago.
Students were not allowed guests at Sunday’s graduation, but many students said afterward that they were awed just to have the opportunity to see their classmates in person again and thought they were fortunate to have an in-person event.
After faculty paraded out of the stadium, students quickly took over the field to the sound of the Dropkick Murphys, throwing their caps and climbing up onto the empty stage for photos.
“It’s surreal,” said Andrea Roman, 22, who studied neuroscience and carried a small Puerto Rican flag so that her parents could recognize her as they watched on livestream. “This feels like an apt conclusion to this.”
“It feels like a daze almost,” said Chinwe Oparaji, 21, who studied computer science and graphic design. “I just did my thing that I’m supposed remember forever.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at email@example.com.