May 4, 2021
SIPA honored its Class of 2021 with a virtual celebration highlighting 636 graduates representing more than 70 countries around the world. The online festivities, presented on April 28 and again on April 29, featured a collection of slides with images, concentrations, and hometowns of the School’s newest alumni. Class members convened via Zoom to watch the livestreamed ceremony while faculty, friends, and family looked on, sharing their good wishes via virtual toasts and an online ‘Kudoboard.’

To further distinguish a year that will endure in memory so vividly, SIPA welcomed not one but two graduation speakers — Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, and Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general. The onetime cabinet officials were joined in addressing the graduates by Dean Merit E. Janow, a pair of student speakers, and program directors and other School faculty.

While recovery from the ongoing global pandemic may be nearing for New York City and the United States at large, Columbia University had concluded earlier this semester—however reluctantly—that it could not hold this year’s graduation in person. It was the second consecutive virtual elebration, and implicit for many was the hope that it would also be the last. (Read more about the University’s online Commencement.)

In a modest gesture toward improving conditions, the University did permit almost 200 new SIPA grads to visit the University’s Butler Lawn on April 29 to mark the occasion in person. Amid a colorful and whimsical tableau of balloons, flags, and other decorations, Janow was joined by Vice Dean Scott Barrett and other SIPA faculty members to greet participants and take pictures. Attendees also received gifts to commemorate the occasion. (Those out of town or otherwise unable to attend will receive souvenirs in the mail.)

International students were invited to take photos and socialize at a series of commencement events hosted by the Columbia Global Centers in Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

If the cancellation of last year’s graduation was a shock, this year’s graduates by and large accepted the unfortunate turn of events with equanimity. After all, this was a group that spent more than half its time at SIPA dealing with a pandemic that stretched on far longer than most could have imagined back in early 2020.

Speakers acknowledged the circumstances while also looking to better days ahead.

“I regret after this most harrowing of years, you're not able to celebrate in person,” Albright said. “I speak for all in hoping that we are now on the path to recovery. And we will soon return not simply to normalcy, but to a renewed sense of optimism about freedom and justice worldwide.”

Albright re-branded the travails of the last year as a marker of resilience.

“You have shown the ability to deal with the unexpected and the unknown in a positive way, by developing new ways of communication, and by understanding that life is going to be different,” she said. “So with the lessons of the pandemic fresh in our minds, you need to help all of us adapt and embrace a new reality, while rejecting the myths that are being peddled in too many places around the world.”

Reinforcing the students’ choice to study policy, the former secretary of state exhorted the importance of the work that awaits them:

“Democracy, though imperfect, remains the best system of government ever invented, and the interdependence of peoples is not a fiction. What happens to any of us can affect all of us. And that is why there is nothing unpatriotic about striving to solve problems across international borders. There is in fact no better way to serve one's country, and no better calling for you and your peers.”

Holder emphasized that the Class of 2021 can make a difference, underscoring the important work to be done and the opportunity for these graduates to do it.

“Rarely in human history has a generation been called to reimagine and to rebuild so much of our society at such a scale,” he said. “I'm not asking you to speculate about the future. Starting right this moment, it is your responsibility to shape it.”

Holder continued:

“I look forward to all that you will do and achieve from this moment on. Rise to the challenges, be unafraid to confront untruth and misuses of power. Use your talents and learn skills to usher in a new age of tolerance, political growth, and shared prosperity. All of this is possible if you will lead our nation. Our world is counting on you.”

Benson Neethipudi MPA ’21, the former SIPASA president, also inspired—calling on his classmates, in part, to be mindful of the opportunities afforded by an elite education:

“My hope for each and every one of us is that we use the privilege and the pedigree of a SIPA education in full measure to be agents of change in the communities we serve, to uplift the voices that are being left out of policymaking and even make our own school more accessible and equitable for future cohorts.”

A final student speaker, Xin Tong MIA ’21, ended her remarks on an uplifting note:

“Let's celebrate and toast to this moment. Let's keep on connecting and change the world together. What can be, with the right spirit, will be. Congratulations, Class of 2021; see you around the globe!”

Janow, too, saluted the graduates for their success in the face of such obvious challenges. The difficulties of the period notwithstanding, she said, “you have contributed and engaged and developed an intellectual community with us so vividly. Your achievement today only underscores the tremendous resilience, drive, and creativity you have demonstrated to us all.

“You inspire all of us and we are so proud of you.”

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

View the Livestream telecast (April 28 version)

SIPA Graduation Virtual Ceremony – April 28, 2021