Children of The (Virtual) Forest: Drew Class of ’20 graduates via Zoom

COMMENCEMENT, PANDEMIC-STYLE: Drew University's Class of 2020 is sent into the world via Zoom, May 9, 2020. Screenshot by Jamie Lynn Connors


By Jamie Lynn Connors

Families rushing to campus to secure parking spots, air horns interrupting speeches, and tearful last embraces gave way to mailed packages of confetti and pre-recorded speeches as the Drew University Class of ’20 graduated Saturday via Zoom.

“You are children of The Forest. You are strong, you are learned and you will prevail,” President MaryAnn Baenninger said in a video address, necessitated by the pandemic that closed college campuses across New Jersey in March.

Make that, children of The Virtual Forest. Thankfully, the ceremony did not feature graduation caps and gowns blending into green screen images of the wooded campus in Madison.

Drew University President MaryAnn Baenninger and Steph Mazzarella, director of student engagement, address Class of ’20 commencement via Zoom, May 9, 2020. Screenshot by Jamie Lynn Connors.

Okay, there were a few tears. Specifically, from Debra J. Liebowitz, provost and dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Caspersen School of Graduate Studies at the Methodist university.

Bound for a new post at Quinnipiac University in the fall, she also was saying goodbye to Drew.

Drew Provost Debra J. Liebowitz, who is bound for Qunnippiac Uinversity this fall, addresses Drew commencement via Zoom, May 9, 2020. Screenshot by Jamie Lynn Connors.

“Unlike you who have taken (a few) years, depending on the length of your academic program and your circumstance, to graduate from Drew, I’m pretty slow. It’s taken me 20,” she said.

Tears were visible as Liebowitz lauded the school’s welcoming environment for members of the LGBTQ+ community.

“I, too, will be forever changed by the space that Drew has created for me,” Liebowitz said.

Re-watch Drew’s ceremony here. 

A deferred, in-person Commencement is planned for Aug. 1, 2020 — coronavirus-permitting.

“The world recognizes you are bereft of closure and I feel the same,” Baenninger said in Saturday’s address. “Class of 2020, you are resilient, and you will go out into the world with your degree from Drew as our mission states, ‘To add to the world’s good.’”

Three pre-recorded student speeches also were presented.

Pooja Manhas spoke for the College of Liberal Arts.

“We didn’t get what we worked so hard for: Our commencement celebrations, our final photos with our professors and friends. Many of us are wondering if this is even worth it,” Manhas said. “I say wholeheartedly that it is. We are worth it.”

Jessica Brandt spoke on behalf of the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.

“Raise a virtual glass in honor of this fantastic little gem in the forest,” said Brandt, an alumna of the College of Liberal Arts.

The Theological School was represented by Ama Aidoo.

“Our journeys here were different, as will be our journeys when we leave this exceptional Drew bubble,” she said. “What is similar, though, is that we all had ‘Why’s’ that motivated us along the way.”

Alumni and board members shared advice and well-wishes in short clips. Following the battery of speeches, a brief video listed names of graduates as Pomp and Circumstance looped in the background. As the names were rolling, faculty members and families congratulated students.

Madison Mayor Robert Conley addresses Drew University 2020 commencement via Zoom, May 9, 2020. Screenshot by Jamie Lynn Connors.

Commencement concluded with a confetti toss and speeches by Madison Mayor Robert H. Conley and thr Resident Bishop, John R. Schol.

Despite the pandemic, “I know you will make Drew, your family, and Madison proud,” Conley said.

Additionally, Drew acknowledged its Teachers of the Year: Brianne Barker from the College of Liberal Arts, Professor Kathy Brown of the Theological School and Kristen Turner from the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies.

Drew also hosted post-commencement meetings via Zoom for each school.

At some point, the forest will reopen. And when it does, Baenninger said, “we will be eager to hear your stories of resilience and determination and good. You will always be part of the Drew family.”


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