Better late than never: Class of 2020 returns for commencement

Alumni and their families return to campus for a belated commencement ceremony


Most of the Class of 2020 returned for a belated graduation ceremony. Photo by Lilah Kimble, ’23.

Grace Mamon

Lexington was full of familiar faces during the weekend of Sept. 11, as 2020 graduates returned to campus for an official commencement ceremony.

It has been about 18 months since COVID-19 disrupted the end of their final year at Washington and Lee.

“It’s a special joy to be with you here, live and in person, on this day that belatedly marks your passage from students to graduates of Washington and Lee,” said University President William Dudley during the ceremony.

Dudley  recognized the anniversary of 9/11 and initiated a moment of silence. He mentioned two Washington and Lee alum, Rob Schlegel, ’85, who died in the Pentagon, and James Gadiel, ’00, who died in the World Trade Center.

The ceremony was held on the colonnade, the usual commencement location. Last year’s commencement was held on Wilson Field to practice social distancing.

This was the first joint undergraduate and law school commencement ceremony since 1978. In 1979, the undergraduate calendar was revised to include spring term, and the school began holding two separate commencement ceremonies.

The turnout was exciting, said Lee Bernstein, ’20, now living in Culpeper, Virginia, and working as a college advisor for the Virginia College Advising Corps with Rappahannock County High School.

“It was awesome that so many people came back, and we got to see everybody in one place again,” Bernstein said.

She said there was a silver lining to being a senior during the pandemic, because while underclassmen had to leave their campus housing in March 2020, many of the seniors stayed in town in their off-campus housing until their leases were up.

“Obviously, it sucks, and I wish the pandemic hadn’t happened,” Bernstein said. “But it was almost a nice way to end my time here.”

But not all members of the Class of 2020 were able to return.

It is customary for the president of the student body to speak at graduation, but Will Bolton, ’20, is now stationed in Fort Stewart, Georgia where he works as an armor officer.

Two students did speak during the ceremony. Julio Hidalgo, ’20, and Jlle Simeu, ’20, both recipients of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan award, each read a piece they selected.

Hidalgo read Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses” and Simeu read a poem called “Garden Lessons” by Ed Bok Lee.

After she read, Simeu said that spent much of her senior year thinking about rootedness and what it means to belong. Though the pandemic hurled us into uncertainty and isolation, it is nice to think that “we are seeds surrounded by soil that awaits our blooming,” she said.

“Class of 2020, like the resilient seeds that we are, I wish us all joyful blooming as we continue to come to know profoundly the truth of who we are and who we want to be,” Simeu said.

Dudley concluded the ceremony with a speech that referenced many events since March 2020: the unanticipated loss caused by the pandemic, the death of George Floyd and its aftermath, the Capitol riot and the university’s grapple with its institutional history and future.

Despite clashes last year over the name of the university and some of its symbols and landmarks, Dudley said Washington and Lee is united in its shared principles, purposes and values.

He referenced Simone Biles at the 2021 Olympic Games, who won a bronze medal on the balance beam after pulling out of several other events.

“We will land on our feet too,” he told the Class of 2020. “Your being here today is itself a triumph.”