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Boston College looks beyond pandemic at optimistic in-person graduation ceremony

Boston College held its 144th commencement at Alumni Stadium.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Thousands of Boston College graduates received their degrees Monday during an in-person commencement ceremony that celebrated their resilience during a pandemic that defined their last year of study.

In matching face masks, graduates filled the center of Alumni Stadium along with a smaller-than-usual number of guests. As the threat of COVID-19 has receded in Massachusetts in recent weeks, students were allowed to bring as many as two people with them.

Commencement Speaker David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, said graduation is “the mother of all transitions” even in a normal year. The pandemic has made the coming changes in students’ lives even more pronounced. The college said 4,321 undergraduate and graduate students received degrees this year.


“Forever after, you’ll now know you have the capacity to survive hard things, and you don’t have to be terrified of them,” he said, according to prepared remarks distributed by Boston College. “Today, the power COVID had over our lives is shrinking and the power we have over our lives is growing.”

Brooks likened the graduates to children cooped up inside waiting for recess, who now have the opportunity to “burst through the doors” and “sprint out into the playground of life.”

“Are we going to let old anxieties hold us back or are we going to seize to the abundance that is actually available starting today?” he asked.

Boston College held its 144th commencement exercises in Alumni Stadium. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Instead, Brooks urged the class to open themselves to new friendships by swapping out social distancing with social courage and closeness.

“As we take off the physical masks, it seems important that we also take off some of the emotional ones,” he said.

Hariharan Shanmugam, who graduated Monday, said in an interview that he was thrilled to be able to bring his parents to the ceremony — at which he was awarded BC’s highest undergraduate honor, the Edward J. Finnegan, S.J., Award.


In a year defined by uncertainty, he thought the move to include guests was symbolic of progressing past the pandemic.

“For the Class of 2021, we’ve had so much time spent in this weird limbo state of a Zoom world and a non-Zoom world. As the COVID-19 pandemic evolves, it’s been really cool to see how we’ve all evolved with the aftermath,” said Shanmugam, a double major in biology and business.

University President William P. Leahy said he hopes the adversity of the past year will ready graduates for the other challenges they — and humanity — will face.

After being hooded by President William P. Leahy, S.J., PH.D., David Brooks accepted his honorary degree from Board of Trustees chair John F. Fish. Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

“We clearly face daunting problems, but that has been true in every age,” he said, according to prepared remarks, naming violence, poverty, religious and political intolerance as a few.

“I am confident that you have the ability, preparation, and commitment to engage and propose solutions for pressing issues of our time because of who you are and what you have learned and experienced in our community,” Leahy added.

Leahy awarded Brooks and a number of others with honorary degrees. Among the recipients were Lyndia Downie, president and executive director of the Pine Street Inn; Sean Guthrie, former BC football player and head of The Fessenden School’s middle school; Christine Montenegro McGrath, a vice president at Mondelez International; and Leo V. Sullivan, former University vice president for human resources and senior advisor to the college’s president.

In closing, Brooks encouraged the graduating class to take advantage of their reversal of luck.


“A year ago, when everything shut down, it seemed like you were the unluckiest generation, but now it seems like you are the luckiest one,” he said. “We’re going to have a roaring `20s. The quality of our lives will depend upon the wisdom and courage with which we will execute this reawakening.”