What Commencement Meant

We had no earthly idea when we convened for Widener Law Commonwealth’s 2019 commencement that what was commencing was the end of an era.

It was the last time our ceremony would be at The Forum.

It was the last time we would be innocent (of the existence of crippling pandemics).

It was the last time for 3 years that our students would be able to invite a full array of family members to a real, regular, in-person event.

And it was the last time we would take “normal” for granted.

If I had known in 2019 that the next 2 commencements would be strained and stretched by the dictates of a world turned upside down, I would have deeply savored each moment of normalcy. I would have given more handshakes and hugs. I would have soaked up the iconic brilliance of The Forum, with its constellation-laden ceiling and its rounded, history-etched walls. I may have even shed a tear, if I had somehow known the traumas and terrors that lay ahead.

But we are not prophets. We are not given glimpses into all the delightful and dystopian iterations of our future. Time only reveals itself to us in real time.

How little we know. And in 2019, even more so.

I have now proudly attended 9 commencements as a staff member at Widener Law Commonwealth, starting in May 2014. The first 6 of those, I now realize in hindsight, were the very definition of normal.

The next commencement, a fully virtual event in May 2020, felt deeply abnormal (despite the best efforts of many diligent, quarantined staff members). Being handed your diploma virtually is a sorry substitute for a handshake and the chance to stride proudly across a stage. Zoom is a sorry substitute for the Forum. And a canned recording of “Pomp and Circumstance” is a sorry substitute for hearing it regally played on a real organ as you walk up the aisle, flanked by your classmates and surrounded by the beaming smiles of your family.

The commencement after that one — an in-person, outdoor, mask-mandated event in May 2021 — tried its dead-level best to feign normalcy but fell a bit short (by sheer necessity and through absolutely no fault of its own). I can’t vouch for how it felt for the actual guests of honor. I sure hope they felt properly honored. But each student was only permitted to invite two guests, because we were in the midst of a viral surge, which greatly shortened the radius of each student’s joy. And the ceremony was held on Widener’s parking lot, without the benefit of a shade, on an unusually sun-baked May day. (Damn you, Covid.)

But the 9th commencement ceremony I attended, which was held last Sunday, managed to pull off something very closely resembling normalcy.

First, it was held in an actual venue for the first time since 2019. And while the Scottish Rite Cathedral isn’t quite as epic as The Forum, it’s very distinctive in its own way — and far more hospitable in its lobby and reception spaces. (Thank you, Freemasons!)

Second, our Widener students were permitted to invite a full slate of friends and family members for the first time since 2019. So the full-throated moral support that emanated from the crowd while each student strode across stage was deeply refreshing, with decibel levels reaching admirable heights.

Third, students with young kids were allowed to carry or handhold them across stage while they received their diplomas, adding a poignant family element to the proceedings. One student even carried his 2-month-old baby boy, who was as calm (and I assume proud) as can be. The adorableness factor was off the charts.

Finally, and on a personal note, this year I was both logistically and emotionally able to get 30-60 seconds of face time with almost every graduate when the ceremony was over.

My job, as it’s been every year that the ceremony was in person, was to collect the commencement gowns from each student and hand them a gift bag and a composite picture of their class. This gave me the primo opportunity to look each of them in the eyes, congratulate them enthusiastically by name (something I take great pride in knowing by heart), and offer some handshakes and even a few hugs depending on how well I knew them.

I was not emotionally able to do that with more than a handful of students at the outdoor ceremony in 2021, because I was deep in a depressive funk from which I wouldn’t find an escape hatch until 10 weeks later. And I was not logistically able to do that with anyone in 2020 since everything was virtual, and thus depersonalized and decontextualized.

I hope and fully assume that having this year’s commencement in person, in a welcoming indoor setting, meant a great deal to our beloved students. Everything about it felt more resonant and more ordinary (in the best possible sense of that word) than the last two ceremonies. For that reason, I’m so very happy for the class of ’22.

But I ache for the class of ’21 that they didn’t get to experience that ordinariness. And I ache even more for the class of ’20, who walked across the “stage” to get their diploma on a Zoom screen. The pandemic stole so much joy, and so many life-defining experiences, from all of us. Covid is a remorseless thief.

The only consolation I can offer all of you, all the way back to the class of ’14 when I started at Widener, is this:

I admire all of you so much. I admire you for triumphing over the daunting, destabilizing, defining gauntlet of law school. I admire you for being lawyers and judges and advocates, and soon-to-be lawyers and judges and advocates. I admire you for making Widener proud.

And I miss seeing you on campus. Achingly in some cases.

My only commencement advice to the class of ’22 is this:

Go out into the world and be great.

(But don’t ever forget that you already are.)

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