Virtual commencement offers echos of tradition

Dr. Amanda House provided the keynote address to the Class of 2020.

In a ceremony unlike any of them could have imagined only a few short months ago, 113 members of the Class of 2020 graduated with their D.V.M. degrees from the UF College of Veterinary Medicine on May 23.

Dr. Dana Zimmel
Interim Dean Dana Zimmel oversaw the virtual ceremony.

And while fellow classmates, former instructors, friends and family of the graduates were not able to celebrate their accomplishments in persona virtual commencement ceremony streamed on the web at 2 p.m. that day — exactly the moment the traditional ceremony would have started at the UF Phillips Center — spotlighting the class and all of its members in a personal way.

The new graduates were “called across the stage” — via PowerPoint — by Dr. Amanda House, director of student affairs, who noted their honors and intended hooders. Messages of congratulations and words of wisdom arrived via video from UF President Kent Fuchs, the college’s interim dean, Dr. Dana Zimmel, Class of 2020 president Lauren Nykanen, and House, who also delivered the commencement address.

Although tassels tied to graduation caps may not have flipped from right to left in full view of a packed Phillips Center, the new graduates had received their tassels and tams in special graduation packages, along with the printed commencement program and alumni gifts. In the virtual ceremony, each student, pictured in regalia, appeared in personalized slides that listed honors, such as certificates or awards, as well as information about their future plans.

“These are truly unprecedented times,” said Nykanen, who served as president of her class for all of their four years in veterinary school.

In her video presentation, she directly addressed the emotions she has experienced since senior year, as they knew it, ended abruptly for her class when the students were sent home from clinics in mid-March after the coronavirus pandemic hit.

“Some of the anxiety I’ve struggled with circles around the concept ‘Did we matter?’” she said. “Without the closure of finishing clinics, participating in all the senior traditions, and experiencing an in-person commencement, were we here? Will we be remembered? Did we get adequate training? Are we truly ready to enter the workforce and uphold the reputation of UF CVM graduates around the world? These are the questions that have kept me up at night.”

But Nykanen reminded her classmates that the months just after the pandemic hit represented only a small percentage of their time together at UF.

“We have had so many fun times and learned so much from some of the greatest minds in our field,” she said. “By far, the most important thing we have learned in all four years here is that throughout all types of weather, Gators really do stick together. My fellow classmates: We have made it. We were here. We did matter.”

Despite the lack of an in-person commencement, she assured the class that they will go down in history as having one of the loudest, most impactful graduations UF has ever seen.

In her keynote speech, House told the class that addressing them was the greatest honor of her career. She thanked class members for being with her through this event, and “so many other firsts” in the last four years.

“Certainly, none of us expected one of those firsts to be a virtual graduation ceremony during a global pandemic, but let’s remember a few of our other memorable moments together,” House said. “You are the first class that I welcomed at orientation as the new director of student affairs, that joined me at Camp Kulaqua for our First Year Leadership Experience, and that I have the privilege of addressing at graduation.”

Their class participated in wellness events, displayed their talents at the CVM Talent Show, and were the first group of students to transition to online clinical learning in the college’s history, House told the new graduates. She offered three key pieces of advice:  say yes to opportunities, but say no when needed to protect priorities and boundaries; remember that actions rather than circumstances define personhood; and understand the critical importance of self-care.

“Say yes — and say no,” House said. “Remember that you are defined by your actions and your leadership in the face of your circumstances, and not by your circumstances.  And finally, take care of yourself.  Your physical and mental health must be a priority so that we can work together to redefine mental health in our veterinary profession.”

Interim Dean Zimmel oversaw the virtual ceremony, welcoming viewers and acknowledging the important role that graduates’ family members, alumni and faculty and staff all have played in the students’ success.

“Although this virtual format is not the way we all envisioned celebrating our new graduates, we are still as thrilled as we would ever be to mark this milestone with them, and with all of you,” Zimmel said.