NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ – Lester Holt used his commencement address Sunday as a clarion call to 13,057 Rutgers-New Brunswick graduates to come reshape the country, if not the world.
And although the NBC news anchor recorded his speech in May and was specifically addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and the job market it has crippled, he could have been issuing a challenge to the grads to someday salve the racial strife that has recently left several American cities in flames and a black man dead beneath a white Minnesota police officer’s knee.
“This is not what any of us imagined for you,” Holt said in a speech recorded at NBC studios. “Stepping out into the world as it is now is not going to be easy, but know that you, built on the love of your families and the foundation of excellence that Rutgers affording you, can be a pillar on which this country will recover and it will.”
Holt’s words – impassioned, if not prophetic - were one of the highlights of the university’s first virtual commencement ceremony in its 254-year history.
A 63-minute video showed the breadth of the Rutgers experience, even if the graduates had been sent home in March and finished the semester via distance learning.
The video featured graduates talking about what it meant to them to earn their degrees, Senators Bob Menendez and Cory Booker wishing the Class of 2020 success in the future, the awarding of an honorary degree in Humane Letters to biotech industry entrepreneur and scientist Sandy J. Stewart and several references to COVID-19 – all punctuated by the firing of a colonial-era cannon.
Much of the virtual ceremony was devoted to Rutgers President Robert Barchi, whose eight-year run as the leader of the university comes to an end next month.
Barchi was shown doing what he does when he’s not running the school: making clocks. He made the trains run on time at Rutgers and then some, said chancellors Brian Strom and Christopher Molloy.
Barchi was praised for the integration of RWJBarnabas Health into the university as well as myriad infrastructure projects that have been completed during his term.
As Antonio Calcado, the Executive Vice President for Strategic Planning and Operations and the leader of the school’s COVID-19 taskforce, said, Barchi “was the right man at the right time.”
Time and again, the virtual ceremony emphasized the uniqueness of this graduation – done under a Stay At Home Executive Order from Gov. Phil Murphy.
“I know that today’s ceremony doesn’t look the way you or your loved one imagined it,” Murphy said during the video. “For starters, your family and friends aren’t there to cheer you on, but they and all New Jerseyans could not be prouder of you. As we are all learning, no matter how carefully we plan, life brings a lot of surprises. Being able to respond to an unexpected obstacle with stamina and perseverance as you have all done this semester shows incredible maturity and reflects the values and character modeled by your families and communities of support.”
Murphy, Holt and the other speakers couldn’t have known that social unrest would explode in cities across the nation since white police officer Derek Chauvin pinned George Floyd to the ground for more than eight minutes on May 25.
The Class of 2020 is stepping into a world where cities from New York to Atlanta to Houston to Minneapolis face nightly rioting and looting. One invisible killer (racism) is taking over the headlines of another (COVID-19).
It almost seems as if Holt’s parting, taped words were glimpsing what was right around the corner.
“You don’t have to be defined as a Generation of Coronavirus,” he said. “Instead, be defined as the generation that helped remold the misshaped clay of this disaster into a better America. Let this moment confer your generation immunity from crippling fear and know the mantra can still stand for something: We are in this together.”