Graduation 2020: Tradition in the Midst of Change

A row of college graduates with their held hands raised; 2020 is in the background

Each year around this time, I’m invited to address a new group of graduates, to provide greetings and remarks at this important juncture in their lives. Over the years, I’ve sat in different parts of the commencement audience as a graduate, faculty member, parent, and speaker. It’s inspiring to listen to these speeches and a great honor to be invited to give one.

I’ve written before about the challenges of delivering one of these talks — to be inspirational, witty, and wise, all within nine minutes! Today, I want to talk about how graduation in 2020 is both different and not so different after all.

This year, so many things surrounding graduation — a ceremony marking the transition from learner to practitioner; a signal that the courses and tests and papers have all been completed, passed, and submitted; a celebration with the friends and family who accompanied the graduate on this journey — aren’t the same.

Social distancing and the larger response to COVID-19 meant an abrupt end to in-person classes and meetings with advisors for the last half of the spring semester. Coursework was completed in “distance mode,” through online discussions and video presentations. Tests evolved into computer-delivered multiple-choice questionnaires, with the ubiquitous empty box to be filled with the wisdom the student had acquired. Papers were submitted via email or uploaded to a course management website. And Zoom parties and video chats have replaced the hugs and handshakes that once marked the graduate’s accomplishment.

But how traditional are these “traditions” that 2020’s graduates are missing? Less so than we might think, I’ll bet. Over the last 50 years, graduation classes have become more diverse. The solemn pomp-and-circumstance procession has been replaced with joyful shouts of extended families and the sight of graduates’ small children wandering down the aisles.

And graduation ceremonies and celebrations have been cut short before for many reasons — both historical and personal — such as times of conflict, the necessity to enter the workforce immediately, or other family obligations, just to note a few. So just as graduation this year looks different, so too did graduation in 2001, in 1980, in 1970, and in 1950.

Graduation season this year is characterized by many trans-societal disturbances — a global health crisis, protests against systemic injustices, and vast economic uncertainty. The graduates of today will be called on to shape and serve a world that is deeply in need of their energy and expertise.

It’s not right to send them forth simply with an apology that the world isn’t like it used to be — there have always been uncertainties, challenges, and complexities. Instead, it is critical to remind graduates that the world awaits their skills and welcomes them to craft a path to a future of service and opportunity.

So my message to the 2020 Columbia University Department of Biomedical Informatics graduates, delivered via a 90-second live video instead of a 9-minute podium speech, applauded their accomplishments and expressed my deepest confidence that the world will be a better, healthier place because of their talent and training in biomedical informatics. As graduates of one of the 16 NLM-supported predoctoral and postdoctoral training programs in biomedical informatics and data science, these men and women represent a unique group of professionals equipped with the biomedical informatics and data science skills necessary to extract knowledge from data and return it to practice. 

I promised them, as I promise all of you, that the National Library of Medicine would travel beside the nurses, physicians, researchers, patients, and leaders of the future, serving as a consistent source of trustable knowledge about health, health challenges, and the technologies and information needed to advance health for all. 

What did you promise your graduate this year? 

3 thoughts on “Graduation 2020: Tradition in the Midst of Change

    1. Thank you for your feedback, Nancy. This is certainly a difficult time to navigate, but it is also helping us all to learn flexibility and resilience – especially our graduates. Everyone at NLM wishes your granddaughter a bright future!

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