By Preston Williams
George Mason University honored a record-high number of graduates Thursday afternoon, celebrating more than 14,000 students who adapted under historically challenging circumstances to stay on track to earn their degrees.
The pre-recorded 53rd Annual Commencement was livestreamed on GMU-TV, with graduates and their families and friends tuned in from around the world. Watch here.
The event honored the more than 9,700 students who graduated in the spring, and the more than 4,600 who completed their degree work during the summer and fall.
Mason President Gregory Washington expressed his admiration for the graduates, saying they deserved to be celebrated for prevailing “against a set of circumstances unknown to virtually anyone on Earth.” He added that achieving their academic goals amid the COVID-19 crisis makes them even better prepared to succeed in their lives and careers.
“You will carry those experiences with you into a world that awaits with all of its promise and mystery,” Washington said. “But you will also take something else with you—a resilience that you did not anticipate needing. One that you might not even know you possess.”
The guest speaker, Charniele L. Herring, BA Economics ’93, congratulated the graduates and the university for persevering in the face of adversity. The first woman and first African American to serve as majority leader of the Virginia House of Delegates, Herring recalled her own challenges as a former homeless high school student who found opportunity through Mason’s Student Transition Empowerment Program.
“My hope for each of you is that you find your voice,” Herring said. “And once you have found your voice, don’t stop using it. When I was where you are, I spoke out on the issues I cared about. About equality for women, helping the homeless population, and fighting for our environment. I hope that passion sparks in you and turns into something powerful and life changing as I know that it can.”
The university had previously recognized spring graduates in May with a livestreamed event on GMU-TV. Those students had finished their final semesters online. Students this fall were enrolled in both in-person and virtual classes as part of the university’s Safe Return to Campus plan. The December graduating class includes 5,075 students who earned degrees or certificates. They hail from 63 countries and 41 states.
Like the spring class, about one-third of the December graduates indicated they are first-generation graduates, and 35% of 2020 undergraduates earned degrees in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.
There were many similarities between the virtual event Thursday and Mason’s traditional graduation ceremony. Santiago Alfonzo Meza, BA Music ’20, sang the national anthem, though not in EagleBank Arena where the ceremony usually takes place, but facing it from aside Mason Pond. He was accompanied by the socially distanced Patriots Fife and Drum Corps and the 8th Green Machine Regiment Band.
Mason deans, recorded at various sites on Mason's campuses, presented their graduates to President Washington so he could officially confer their degrees. School and college websites featured personalized slides made by the graduates, and those will doctoral candidates held live virtual ceremonies after the virtual celebration.