By John Schilling
A day that many Brooklyn College alumni thought had passed arrived on Tuesday, July 12 as members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 returned to campus for “Comeback Commencement,” an in-person graduation ceremony held in the Claire Tow Theater in Whitman Hall.
Despite the obvious departure from Brooklyn College’s traditional commencement format at the Barclays Center, the ceremony carried on as it normally would have with the Brass Ensemble serenading the now-alumni. The “Comeback Commencement,” however, still proved to be even more unique as each student had their name and the degree they earned read aloud as they processed in, an honor that took just under an hour before the commencement ceremony officially started.
The two classes combined for 9,161 new alumni with 6,793 bachelor’s and 2,231 master’s degrees, as well as 137 students who received advanced certificates.
In opening remarks, Brooklyn College President Michelle J. Anderson acknowledged the passage of time by emphasizing that this was the first commencement where she saw “alumni” seated before her who have already faced the challenges of post-college life and on an even larger scale.
“[…] Unlike most graduations where I see students who are going to become graduates, this time around I see alumni who have spent one or two years in the working world or pursuing graduate degrees,” said Anderson. “Not only did you have to spend time overcoming the obstacles that the pandemic presented…but also you had to navigate a career landscape that in many ways was radically different than the one that awaited you when you first entered Brooklyn College.”
Two students in particular who faced this challenge were Roby Daniel and Asma Awad, the valedictorians for 2020 and 2021, respectively.
In a brief address to the alumni in attendance, Daniel, a triple major in chemistry, psychology and business administration who is currently studying medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled graduating in the midst of the lockdown and how it was challenging to “see the finish line.”
“But even with all the cards stacked up against us, we made it,” said Daniel. “Our struggle has forged us into the leaders of tomorrow as we have learned a new way to learn, a new way to teach, and, most importantly, a new way to succeed.”
Awad, who earned her bachelor’s in computer science and now works as a software engineer at JPMorgan Chase & Co., concurred with Daniel’s sentiment, drawing upon her coding experience and three important lessons she learned: “Embrace the unfamiliar,” “There are always multiple ways to solve a problem,” and “The importance of representation.”
“None of us are immune to making mistakes,” added Awad. “It’s one thing to be perfect and another to be your best, and I think that the latter says more about someone than the former.”
Shortly after, keynote speaker Rachel Strauss-Muniz took to the stage, focusing on the positives of the day and not just the dark time that preceded and ultimately delayed it. Strauss-Muniz, who graduated from Brooklyn College in 2001 and went on to work across various projects as an actor/performer, producer, writer, and podcaster, felt the challenges of the pandemic early on but did not let it discourage her from moving forward.
“[…] I lost my footing on the stages of New York City and across the country, but I once again gained the strength to pivot just like you,” said Strauss-Muniz. “You had a choice to plummet or pivot and you did it…We all made the decision to shift, adapt, and overcome.”
In addition to Strauss-Muniz, the “Comeback Commencement” also featured Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Randy Peers (class of 1996) and CUNY Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Denise Maybank (class of 1978) as speakers, as well as a surprise video message from New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams (classes of 2001 and 2005). Each speaker praised the recent alumni for their accomplishments and recalled their own time as students at Brooklyn College.
Peers, in particular, praised the alumni for their resiliency throughout the pandemic and remarked that their degree goes above and beyond what they learned in their classes.
“[…] The degree you now hold helps to tell that story of resiliency,” said Peers. “It is part of the story that demonstrates that light still shines even through the darkest days, and while dreams can be interrupted, they cannot be denied. Even this commencement day is an example of that. Delayed. But not denied.”
While powerful in the moment, Peers’ comment would be seemingly deemed inaccurate later that day as alumni from the classes of 2020 and 2021 noticed posts of the “Comeback Commencement” on social media and claimed to have not been aware that it was even taking place.
“Not everyone got emails or were told about this…,” commented user @lucid.dreamerx3 on an Instagram post from Brooklyn College (@bklyncollege411). “I cried today, I’m beyond upset [that] I missed this because they chose not to communicate with everyone…”
“Was the invite randomly generated?” questioned user @girl__from__ipanema. “I didn’t get an invitation and I’m [from the] class of 2020.”
Upon further investigation and comments from other users, The Vanguard found that a “Save the Date” email had been sent by Brooklyn College Commencement Team to alumni nearly two months prior.
“I received a general email that the ‘Comeback Commencement’ was happening on May 20,” Shanika Carlies, a 2020 undergrad journalism graduate who attended the ceremony, confirmed to The Vanguard. “There was a link to reserve my spot in the email.”
This became evident as comments began to pour in from alumni thanking Brooklyn College for having the ceremony and mentioning the email they received back in May. Despite this, however, other comments continued from other alumni claiming they never received the email and demanding answers as to why.
“I get wanting to make up for [lost] causes but if everyone who graduated during the time frame was not invited, what was the reason?” commented Landa (@lovelandab) on the post. “Because now I’m even more annoyed and reliving this whole experience again.”
The Vanguard reached out directly to multiple alumni who claimed to have not been notified about the “Comeback Commencement” and did not hear back in time for publication.