‘Unconventional minds are built for uncertain times’

University honors Class of 2020 in first virtual Convocation in UChicago history

As people across the globe tuned in Saturday to watch the University of Chicago’s first virtual Convocation, President Robert J. Zimmer reminded them of the importance of a tradition that has brought together the University community since 1893.

“Convocations are meant to bind together into a unity the many complex and diverging forms of activity which constitute our University’s life and work,” said Zimmer, drawing on the words of William Rainey Harper, UChicago’s first president. “In times such as these, observing these traditions is important as ever, and thus today’s ceremony is about reflecting upon the whole of what we do across the University.” 

In their remarks, Zimmer and Provost Ka Yee C. Lee acknowledged the challenges of the past quarter. But Lee reminded the Class of 2020 that a UChicago education prepares them to enter a world filled with great uncertainty.

“History has shown us time and again that unconventional minds are built for uncertain times,” Lee said. “The world that you now venture into, more than ever, needs individuals with the courage to embrace the unknown, the drive to follow their passions, the audacity to defy the status quo, and the ability to transform ideas into actions.”

As they face “the inevitable peaks and troughs that are a part of life,” Lee reminded this year’s graduates: “You bring with you the extraordinary tools that are the hallmark of a University of Chicago education: the rigor of inquiry, the willingness to challenge, the readiness to listen to, and work with, those who might have viewpoints different from yours, and the power to bring these skills to bear on the most pressing of society’s challenges, and make the world a better place.”

Although the Convocation ceremony was filmed in May, before recent events sparked important discussions about injustice and racism in the country, Lee shared a new message with students preceding the broadcast. Acknowledging the difficult time in America, she said: “Let us take this moment to come together in solidarity to celebrate you—the Class of 2020.”

‘A collective sense of pride and unity’

This year’s Convocation reflected a number of special performances recommended by UChicago students who offered feedback during the event planning process. Saturday’s ceremony began with a rendition of Son Lux song “Remedy,” recorded by members of Voices, a student a cappella group. Three graduating members of Voices also provided messages to the Class of 2020. In keeping with tradition, the brass and pipe band performed a virtual procession before the University Marshal called the ceremony to order.

In his opening remarks, Zimmer noted that this year’s 533rd Convocation isn’t the first ceremony altered by global events. In 1918, Convocation was held without a reception or a faculty speaker due to the Spanish Influenza and impact of World War I. Similarly, Convocation was canceled due to the influenza epidemic of 1929.

Even though the Class of 2020 celebrated at a distance, Zimmer invited this year’s graduates and their families to return to campus next year to celebrate in person. He later verbally conferred degrees to 5,505 candidates.

“I’m sure today’s ceremony is not the one you imagined when you first came to our campus,” Zimmer said. “And although today we celebrate your achievements from a distance, I hope that as you join us from around the world, in the company of your family and friends, that you still feel a collective sense of pride and unity for all that you have accomplished during your time at the University of Chicago.”

The University also recognized faculty members who won the Llewellyn John and Harriet Manchester Quantrell Awards for Excellence in Undergraduate Teaching and the Faculty Awards for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.

The event was the highlight of Convocation weekend, which also included a Class Day ceremony honoring graduating fourth-year students as well as individual diploma ceremonies for the College and graduate schools and divisions. Click here for a video playlist of this weekend’s ceremonies.

Class Day: ‘The world needs you, and it’s your turn to change it’

University of Chicago students offered one another messages of support and celebration, despite their distance, as they gathered Friday for an online ceremony honoring graduates of the undergraduate College.

One of three student speakers during the annual Class Day ceremony, Emily Stevens expressed deep admiration for her fellow graduates, especially given the challenges the Class of 2020 has collectively faced.

“The world has become unanchored in a new way, but we know how to row in the doldrums and cut the sails in a storm. We couldn’t have gotten here if we didn’t,” said the English language and literature major. “This class is an incredible group of people. I am honored and humbled to be among you.”

Class Day kicked off a weekend of Convocation-related activities across the University and its divisions and schools. 

Fellow fourth-year students Greer Baxter and Annie Geng joined Stevens in reflecting on their UChicago education, and how to apply what they’ve learned to what comes next.

“The University of Chicago gave us the lessons and the tools to take this next big leap,” said Baxter, a creative writing major. “Here we were given the freedom and the confidence to bring our own meaning to life, with a sense of conviction that will set us apart. Whether we know it or not, we are ready.”

Geng, a philosophy major, argued that becoming a young adult “means unlearning the ways you’ve understood the world while growing up; growing into, with trial and error, your own values.”

“Remember that wherever you’ll be, the world is yours now, and it’s ready for you to make it what you want it to be,” she said. “The world needs you, and it’s your turn to change it.”

John W. Boyer, dean of the College, commended students for navigating a difficult quarter, saying that future generations will be inspired by “the heroic efforts that have brought us to this place.”

“You came to Chicago with immense hopes and ardent zeal, and you have worked mightily to be worthy of this great University and the special honor that attaches to anyone who passes through it,” he said. “We cannot know the particulars of what lies ahead in each of your lives. But we do know that you are strong and perceptive, that you have the energy and grace to begin to master the world, and that you will succeed and flourish and make significant contributions to all of your communities.”

Distinguished cancer researcher Otis W. Brawley, SB’81, MD’85, delivered the keynote address at Class Day. The former chief medical and scientific officer of the American Cancer Society, Brawley spoke of how UChicago’s culture of inquiry offered him a rigorous understanding of both the scientific and social aspects of medicine.

“Today in medicine we have to deal with America’s politics of fear and anger,” said Brawley, whose research addresses disparities in preventative care. “Politics of fear and anger promote tolerance of injustice, tolerance of inequality and tolerance of oppression. We in medicine work to change the narrative.”

As a parting challenge to the Class of 2020, Brawley encouraged graduates to use the methods of inquiry they learned at UChicago to support others.

“As you go forth, mentor others,” he said. “It’s your payback. Be a positive influence to others. Remember that the greatest honor one human can give to another is to say: ‘Can you help me?’ Be open to others who ask for help. Consider being asked an honor.

“Your University of Chicago education is a privilege. I challenge you to take that privilege, have confidence in your abilities, have high expectations and take that method into the world.”