AMHERST — The bells of the Old Chapel rang across the campus of the University of Massachusetts on Friday afternoon to celebrate this year’s graduating class — though few graduates were physically present to hear them.
The bell-ringing, streamed live on Facebook at noon, was just a precursor to the main event at 4:30. The commencement ceremony for 6,600 students — which would normally fill McGuirk Alumni Stadium with thousands of proud family, friends and newly conferred degree holders — was broadcast over the internet for the first time in the school’s history because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
And even though some of the magic of the day was surely lost in the virtual shuffle, the class of 2020 was treated to words of encouragement from not just the usual suspects in the 20-minute presentation, but also from nearly 30 celebrities and prominent public figures such as Ben Affleck, Rachel Maddow and Robert Kraft.
“First of all, let me just say what everybody is thinking,” said UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy at the school’s historic 150th commencement celebration, wearing full academic regalia in his living room while images of a tropical island, asteroids and bananas were cast behind him as background. “This is weird. Like, super weird.”
Like many colleges and universities across the United States, UMass canceled all in-person classes in mid-March for the rest of the semester and transitioned to remote learning to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus. Since then, life in general has changed abruptly, with nonessential businesses closed and covering your face in public now an order from the governor.
Acknowledging such “strange times,” Subbaswamy said the commencement, both streamed on Facebook and on the school’s website, was meant to celebrate the graduating class’s success in the face of adversity.
“While at UMass Amherst, you conquered challenges of both the heart and the mind,” Subbaswamy told the graduating students. “And the significance of this intellectual and personal journey is not defined by one day.”
After hearing words from University of Massachusetts President Marty Meehan, UMass graduating student Grace Juhoi Jung spoke and reflected on what she described as an “unexpected and enriching four years.”
“Now we sit here with an even greater, potentially even scarier chapter of our lives,” Jung said. “But luckily, UMass has given us our set of keys for the next few doors we come across.”
Lifestyle brand Life Is Good co-founder John Jacobs, a 1990 graduate from UMass, encouraged graduates to not be afraid to try to achieve their goals.
“Whatever you want to do, hope to do — try it on a small scale. When you try, you either succeed or you learn,” said Jacobs, who will be the keynote speaker for a future on-campus ceremony that has yet to be scheduled. “Either way, you win.”
Within seconds of Jacobs’ speech, the university-estimated 15,000 viewers were treated to a flurry of salutes from famous figures who were asked to give advice to the graduating class in 10 seconds or less.
“My advice to the UMass Amherst Class of 2020 would be make good choices, and make good friends,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Because ultimately your life is going to be a collection and a tabulation of the people you’ve spent your time with and the people you’ve hung around with and the decisions you’ve made along the way.”
“Don’t be so focused on your plans that you’re unwilling to consider the unexpected,” said Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. “Sometimes things don’t go as you planned. But sometimes you turn out even better in the long run.”
“Please, dream big, and don’t be afraid to fail,” said Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots. “You can do it.”
“Be honest; be accountable; help people; stand up for what’s right; when you’re wrong, own it and apologize; forgive others; forgive yourself; be grateful; have empathy; know your worth,” Affleck said. “Just because it’s online doesn’t mean its true — trust me — and don’t read the comments.”
“Enjoy this moment if you can,” Maddow said. “Yes, it is weird, but it is your weird and what’s more western Mass. than that!”
Other prominent figures to speak were U.S. Reps. Jim McGovern, D-Worcester; Richard Neal, D-Springfield; and Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston; as well as Patriots wide receiver Julian Edelman, Patriots defensive back Devin McCourty, UMass hockey All-American John Leonard, former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, Emmy-winning actor Rob Corddry, NASA astronaut and UMass Amherst alumna Cady Coleman, comedian and actress Rachel Dratch, philanthropist Earl Stafford, Peloton co-founder Hisao Kushi, UMass hockey alumnus and NHL player Cale Makar, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver and UMass alumnus Andy Isabella, bassist Ken Casey of the Dropkick Murphys, president of Mullen Lowe’s flagship Boston office Kelly Fredrickson, former UMass basketball head coach John Calipari, Patriots running back James White, actor Jeffrey Donovan, and Karen Kaplan, CEO of the Hill Holliday agency, Boston.
Before commencement was sent off by the Minuteman Marching band with a virtual rendition of the school’s fight song, Subbaswamy left students with words of encouragement.
“You are the revolutionaries. The special ones. The indomitable. Those who can not be broken by fear, uncertainty or chaos,” he said. “You will forever be known as the class that kept it together, even though circumstance forced you apart.”
Michael Connors can be reached at [email protected]