Stanford honors 2020 graduates with a virtual celebration

The Stanford community gathered virtually Sunday to reflect on the accomplishments of this year’s graduates, thank them for their contributions to the university, and offer reassurance as they embark on new beginnings in a changed world.

During a virtual celebration Sunday in honor of the 2020 graduates, President Marc Tessier-Lavigne offered his congratulations to students and, speaking on behalf of the Stanford community, assured them that they are both resilient and essential to help address the unprecedented challenges facing our nation and world today.

Talisman a cappella sang Amazing Grace to open the virtual celebration for 2020 grads. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

“Even in the face of these uncertain and difficult times, I want to tell you today how confident we are in your ability to weather this storm,” he said.

The livestreamed event – which did not take the place of Stanford’s traditional Commencement ceremony – marked the end of spring quarter and the completion of degrees for undergraduate and graduate students. As of June 8, approximately 1,700 bachelor’s degrees, 2,400 master’s degrees and 1,100 doctoral degrees were to be awarded to 2020 graduates. In all, more than 14,000 viewers tuned in to celebrate the graduates’ achievements and recognize their contributions to the Stanford community.

“I admire your perseverance in getting to this important benchmark in your lives,” said Provost Persis Drell. “And I admire your commitment to Stanford’s founding purpose to work for the benefit of humanity.”

The celebration opened with a performance of Amazing Grace by Stanford student a cappella group Talisman, followed by remarks from graduate and undergraduate student leadership who reflected on the unprecedented circumstances into which they are graduating. They also noted the inspiring ways in which students have stepped up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide demonstrations against anti-Black violence.

“We could have let the fear and uncertainty force us to recede,” said Jackson Eilers, one of the Senior Class presidents. “But instead, our fellow students saw the opportunity to lead in the community.”

Meeting the moment

As the challenging and uncertain times continue, Tessier-Lavigne offered the graduates three pieces of advice. First, he encouraged them to lean on their communities for support, particularly the friends they’ve made at Stanford, insisting that those relationships will endure the current crisis.

University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne offered his congratulations and advice to 2020 graduates via video. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Second, he called on graduates to use their knowledge and skills to effect change in the world. He noted that the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police three weeks ago and the subsequent national outcry have underscored how urgent it is to make lasting changes in our country and in the world.

“Real change requires the hard and dedicated work of all of us, and it’s clear more than ever, how much we need your talents, your creativity and your commitment to improving our world if we’re going to find solutions to the serious challenges we face.”

Finally, Tessier-Lavigne urged graduates to continue dreaming big, despite the obstacles ahead.

“You have the strength and creativity to overcome these challenges and the hard work that you’ve done has prepared you to achieve great things,” he said. “Never forget it.”

Advice from alumni

The celebration featured a performance by Stanford’s Chamber Chorale, as well as photos and videos depicting graduates’ time on the Farm. Also featured were many alumni who offered their congratulations to graduates, including actress Issa Rae, ’07, golfer Michelle Wie, ’12, and businesswoman Marissa Mayer, ’97, MS ’99.

Offering their congratulations to graduates are former Secretary of State George Shultz, actress and writer Issa Rae, BA ’07, and U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, BA ’91, MA ’92. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Several alums expressed empathy for this year’s graduates by reflecting on the crises they faced during their time at Stanford. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, ’91, MA ’92, recalled the destruction caused by the Loma Prieta earthquake that rattled the Bay Area in 1989 and the positive ways students responded to the crisis. And members of the Class of 2009 reflected on graduating during the Great Recession, which resulted in fewer job opportunities for graduates and long-term economic uncertainty.

Sylvia Robinson and Phil Taubman of the Class of 1970 recounted the tumult that rocked the nation during their time on the Farm, including the civil rights movement and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“That segued into the Vietnam War years and the Vietnam War protests where students were very, very active,” Robinson said. “We felt as though we had an imperative to make a difference, to do something.”

The Stanford Chorale closed the virtual celebration with the alma mater, Hail, Stanford, Hail. (Image credit: Andrew Brodhead)

Taubman said great upheaval at Stanford and throughout the nation in the late 1960s was not unlike the world today’s graduates are entering.

“It’s quite an extraordinary time that today’s seniors are experiencing. This crisis has thrown your world out of kilter just the way the war and turmoils threw my world out of kilter,” he said. “I hope you’ll be as fired up as I was and my classmates were to do what we could to try to set the world straight.”

The Stanford experience for George Jedenoff, ’40, MBA, ’42, was marked by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war. Yet Jedenoff said he doesn’t remember a time when all of society was as affected by crisis as it is today, and offered advice to today’s graduates:

“Life is just a series of uncertain events. You have to learn to adjust and look at change as something positive,” he said. “You have a privilege and an obligation to utilize your talents in such a manner that will leave the world in a better situation than you found it.”

The full livestream is available at