The first time Joe Beggs graduated from Washington University in St. Louis, he was alone in his St. Louis apartment, watching Chancellor Andrew D. Martin’s recorded address on YouTube.
“It was hardly the Commencement I dreamed about,” Beggs said. “When Andrew Martin said, ‘Will the graduates please stand?’ I stood up in my boxers and my cap and flipped my tassel. Today was better.”
Beggs was among the nearly 1,400 members of the Class of 2020 to return to campus on Sunday, May 30, to celebrate an in-person Commencement on Francis Olympic Field. This time, he wore full regalia and a special medallion signifying his role as a student marshal for the McKelvey School of Engineering.
“I actually cried. I was not prepared for the emotion I felt,” said Beggs, who earned a degree in biomedical engineering and has launched two companies in the Cortex Innovation Community. “This is such a special day for me and my family. We wanted to be here together.”
Graduate Greigory Dimailig also was overwhelmed by his return to campus.
“Listening to the chancellor, it finally hit me — we’ve all graduated,” said Dimailig, who earned an economics degree from Arts & Sciences and is now attending medical school at the University of Wisconsin.
Dimailig was at the NCAA track-and-field championships in North Carolina last year when the team got word that the university would close in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Like so many students, he was devastated to learn he would not have a chance to say goodbye to his friends and professors.
“I was like, ‘How can this be the end of my senior year?'” Dimailig recalled. “I won’t say this fully repairs it, but it’s great to be here together.”
Rachel Kleinhandler agreed. She returned to St. Louis from New York, where she works at The Creative Coalition, an advocacy group that brings together entertainers and experts to produce public service campaigns. There, she met Commencement speaker Julie L. Gerberding, MD, who is helping the coalition combat vaccine hesitancy. In her speech, Gerberding mentioned Kleinhandler and her love of the WashU community.
“I was so stunned. It was the perfect culmination of my time here,” said Kleinhandler, a Gephardt Civic Scholar who studied American culture studies in Arts & Sciences and the business of social impact at Olin Business School. “To have this speaker, on this campus, surrounded by all of the friends and mentors who supported me, is amazing. I got 3.75 years of a wonderful college experience. This gives us that sense of closure.”
Chancellor Andrew D. Martin said he was thrilled that more than 40% of the Class of 2020 returned to Washington University for the in-person ceremony. Last spring, Martin convened a group of students, staff and faculty to plan a special ceremony. Back then, no one could have predicted how the pandemic would forever change Washington University and its community.
“It’s just so cool to have these students who had to leave in the middle of spring back here,” Martin said. “It’s been hard for the Class of 2020; there’s no sugarcoating what they’ve been through. I hope today is a day of closure, but also a day of celebration.”
Note: A collection of photos from the 2020 Commencement ceremonies is available for viewing and downloading here.