It was a ceremony freighted, in the words of Jessica Seliger MPA ’20, with less pomp and more circumstance than anyone could have predicted.
For the first time ever, SIPA honored its graduating class not in person but with a virtual celebration. The worldwide pandemic had forced SIPA to shelve its on-campus graduation ceremonies — to say nothing of uncompleted Capstone travel, several weeks of class, and, indeed, most markers of ordinary life.
But despite the disruption there were still 727 graduates representing 69 nations to celebrate. SIPA staff worked for many weeks on arrangements suitable for the occasion.
Featured speaker Darren Walker, the Ford Foundation president, recorded an address for video delivery. So did Dean Merit E. Janow, two student speakers — Seliger and Maite Herrero Gorostiza, the SIPASA president — and several program directors and other faculty members.
Graduating students contributed slides with their photos, their concentrations, their hometowns. An online ‘Kudoboard’ gave a chance to share messages of congratulations with the community at large.
The collection of videos were made public at 9 a.m. on May 17, and the Office of Student Affairs convened three watching parties that drew more than 550 guests between them—not just students but also family members, friends, faculty, and staff. Another 245 assembled Sunday evening to hear toasts from administrators, faculty, and students.
Despite the changed circumstance, the joy and sense of accomplishment very obviously remained for members of the Class of 2020. It was poignant to see the graduates on screen—especially those wearing mortarboards, or graduation gowns. From living rooms around the city and the world, the expressions of the viewers conveyed glee and wisftulness and satisfaction and relief and many more emotions. All who watched were united by a desire to celebrate one unambiguous piece of good news.
In his remarks to the graduates, Walker, too, looked on the bright side:
“I find hope in both the promise of your tomorrows and the promising work that you are doing already. You are already meeting this moment with fearlessness, courage and fortitude.”
SIPA students, Walker continued, appreciate the interdependence of all the world’s citizens:
“That's why you answered the call… to international and public affairs in the first place, because you believe in the value of service through civil society, competent government, and international collaboration, just like generations of SIPA graduates before you,” he said.
“Now, it is your turn,” Walker concluded, “to redefine global citizenship and model just leadership for this new history as we begin together, today. The world has changed forever and you will change it for the better.”
Seliger, chosen to speak for the class, saluted her classmates for their “grit, optimism, and resilience.”
“These characteristics of SIPA students,” she said, “should make our communities reassured and hopeful about the future with this class of SIPA students as its leaders…. I’m humbled to be a fellow SIPA alum and I look forward to seeing you back on campus and inevitably when we cross paths around the world.”
A noteworthy toast in the evening program came from Michael Nutter, the former Philadelphia mayor who now teaches at SIPA.
“You know that I’m the ultimate optimist,” he said, addressing the graduates. “I’m that much more optimistic because of all of you— the work that you do, the things that you talk about… and what you plan to do going forward is really what keeps me going, and keeps me enthusiastic about the future.”
The virtual ceremony was nobody’s first choice but neither will any of the participants forget it.
“I hope that in the years to come, everyone participating in this virtual celebration will be able to take some pride in how they responded to this unprecedented challenge. I have no doubt that those who came after us will be able to say that the ‘Seeples’ of this generation were as brave as ever, ” said Gorostiza, the SIPASA president.
“All of us wish that we could celebrate with our graduates in person today,” observed Janow, who took a moment to note the toll of coronavirus on the Columbia community and the world at large.
But, Janow said, the School looks forward to “joyously” welcoming the graduates members back to SIPA in the future.