A pandemic later, Suffolk sends off 2020 and 2021 graduates

After 14 months of waiting, a crowd of eager, masked-Suffolk University graduates were celebrated and finally walked the stage after facing a year of challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Just over 4,000 graduates from the classes of 2020 and 2021 gathered at the city’s historic location of Fenway Park to receive their long awaited degrees ceremonies on May 22 and 23, joined by friends, family and fellow classmates both in-person and virtually.

CLASS OF 2021

The Class of 2021 graduated on Saturday, with the Sawyer Business School (SBS) commencement starting at 1:30 p.m. with 971 classmates on the ballpark field and friends and family watching from the stadium seats.

Caleb MacDonald (BSBA ‘21) kicked off the celebration with his performance of the national anthem. President Marisa Kelly and SBS Dean Amy Z. Zeng followed by congratulating the class for their adaptability and perseverance through the pandemic.

Courtesy of Kathy Maloney

Kelly acknowledged the impressive connection students were able to make virtually, along with the selfless work they had contributed to the community during their time at the university.

“I know that you will support the revitalization of Boston and other communities around this country and around the world because you have been doing that throughout this pandemic,” said Kelly. “You will help create a more just and inclusive society because you have been committed to those core principles during your time here.”

“You are Suffolk ready. And you have been, and will continue to be a powerful force for good,” Kelly continued.

Karen DeSalvo was honored as the Most Distinguished Alumni.

The alum started her healthcare mission at Suffolk where she received a BA in biology and political science in 1988. Over the years, DeSalvo worked in President Barack Obama’s administration and was the acting assistant secretary for health for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

As the New Orleans commissioner of health,, she rebuilt and advanced the healthcare system that was severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina. She now serves as the first chief health officer at Google, in which she amplified public information regarding COVID-19 around the globe.

Raised by a single mother below the poverty level in Texas, DeSalvo credited her time at Suffolk as a life-altering choice that gave her the flexibility and support she needed to start her career.

“Sawyer values cultural awareness because of the powerful impact it can have on future leaders like you,” DeSalvo said. “That diversity is what differentiates Suffolk students in the classroom and Sawyer alumni in the boardroom.”

DeSalvo said that as privileged degree-holders, graduates should make a better life for themselves and help others do the same. “This pandemic hasn’t just made everyone an amateur epidemiologist, it has pulled back the curtain to a host of inequities in our health, social, financial systems. Inequities that warrant systemic improvements…” said DeSalvo. “Your class is entering the workforce at an inflection point in history and I urge you to apply your Sawyer education to turn this moment of devastation into a movement for change.”

Jennifer Barthelemy (MPA ‘21) spoke on behalf of SBS graduate students about the power her fellow students had gained over the past year.

Dean Amy Zeng in a screenshot of livestream

“In all we’ve lost, we haven’t lost our greatness. Greatness can come from anything, including a pandemic that has up-ended our sense of normalcy,” said Barthelemy. “It doesn’t come from perfection. Greatness comes out of the lessons learned from failures and the growth experience through mistakes.

Barthelemy is the first Haitian-American woman to receive the Commonwealth Suffolk Fellowship. She asked the Class of 2021 to walk intentionally toward the future.

Alessandra Eduarda Kambundo (BSBA ‘21) followed with a speech about insecurities around relatability and acceptance she faced throughout her time at Suffolk as an international student.

“I am speaking to a generation that is woke and fights for equality, inclusion, respect, and kindness,” said Kambundo. “And then I am speaking to [my fellow international students] specifically because we all took a leap of faith and entrusted this university with our future, and not only did they transform our lives, but they incentivized us to speak up and show off our accents because it is a clear reflection of our people, our story and our culture.”

The College of Arts and Science (CAS) 2021 ceremony began shortly after at 7 p.m. with 699 graduates in attendance. Alexa LoDuca (BA ‘21) started the ceremony with the singing of the national anthem.

Martin Baron, longtime editor of The Washington Post until his retirement in 2021 and former editor of the Boston Globe, addressed the graduates by recognizing society’s vulnerability over the past year.

“We once had confidence that our country was different from others that had tried democracy and failed. Ours, we believed, had a sturdy foundation in strong, vibrant institutions — Congress, the courts, the press, houses of worship, the scientific establishment,” Baron said.

“But we learned in recent years that our institutions were more vulnerable to pressure and manipulation than we ever imagined. Many turned submissive when a powerful leader demanded it,” he continued. “Others went quiet for fear of reprisal.”

Despite the adversity the country has faced in recent years, Baron left the graduates with a message of hope.

“We can either give up on institutions who betray our values, or we can seek to repair them. I urge you to take the latter,” he said. “ Repair them.”

Sophie Mailhot (BFA ‘21), the CAS student commencement speaker, addressed her fellow classmates at the iconic stadium after many spent the year apart.

“I’ve heard so many professors and professionals say that we deserve a gold medal for our dedication to learning,” Mailhot said. “Well, here we are. This is our gold medal. We are living through history, and we are the history.”

Courtesy of Pat Lovelace

CLASS OF 2020

On Sunday, Suffolk celebrated the graduates of 2020 a year later, making the commencement even more meaningful. With many graduates already in the workforce, former-students gathered in Boston together one final time, coming from all over the country and globe.

The SBS commencement at 1:30 p.m. welcomed 916 new alumni. Ximena Ojopi (MBAMSBA ‘20) welcomed everyone with her singing of the national anthem.

“While we may be in these seats a year late, we are far from a year behind,” said Robert Osgood, (EMBAMBA ‘20) speaking on behalf of the SBS graduate students.

Sophia Romeo, (BSBA ‘20) the undergraduate SBS  speaker, took the opportunity to capitalize on the commencement’s location in a ballpark, reminiscing on the first time she swung a baseball bat. From this she recalled lessons from baseball, relating them to the experiences of the graduates.

Romeo also reflected on the unique circumstance she and her fellow graduates have faced.

“We graduated with no graduation and we went on to jobs with no offices,” said Romeo.

Dorothy Savarese, the chair and executive officer of the bank Cape Cod 5, received an MBA from the Sawyer Business School in 2004. At the commencement, she was given an honorary doctorate.

“You made it through this past year,” Savarese said, her words met with applause from the crowd. “You are getting your overdue recognition and time for celebration.”

Savarese addressed the experience that the graduating class will take with them as they continue on their individual journeys.

“Drawing on your education at Suffolk and the events of the last year, you can practice alchemy…,” she said. “That is, you can reframe your thinking and approach and harness what you have learned to springboard you forward.”

To close out the weekend, the CAS Class of 2020 commencement took place with 707 new alumni in attendance at 7 p.m.. Ruth Christmas (BA ‘20) delivered the national anthem in front of her fellow graduates.

“Members of the Class of 2020 continue to make a positive difference in your communities today, at a time when your communities need your commitment more than ever,” said Kelly.

CAS graduates listened to a speech from the Hon. Justice Serge Georges Jr., associate justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court who received his JD from Suffolk Law.

“There is one thing much, much worse than being 25 years old and coming to this huge realization that you are embarking on the wrong career; and that is to be 65 years old, and reflecting that you just spent four decades living the wrong life for you.”

Student commencement speaker Alexia Baugniet (BS ‘20) addressed her classmates and the ties formed during their college years, no matter where their Suffolk experience started.

“We started our journeys at Suffolk separately, but together,” she said. “Some of us came in as graduate students, some of us came in as transfer students. Some came in as freshmen boasting our yellow t-shirts through the buckling streets of Boston. We found new ways to adjust to the life.”

As each ceremony came to a close, “Sweet Caroline” could be heard from the speakers as the graduates exited the field to see friends and family, with masks still on but a diploma signaling a new start in their hands.