In a scene both surreal and comforting, “Pomp and Circumstance” echoed through a mostly empty Butler Chapel Saturday morning as Campbell University celebrated the commencement of 1,276 students from its nine schools, including 33 students representing the charter class of the School of Engineering.
With large gatherings still not permitted under state and national orders due to the COVID-19 global pandemic, Campbell hosted a virtual commencement Saturday broadcast to more than 1,400 viewers, many of them posting their congratulations to the Class of 2020 during the livestream. While the event served to honor this year’s graduating class — which had its final semester upended by the pandemic and faces an uncertain world post graduation — President J. Bradley Creed said in his opening address that when regulations are lifted and the University feels it is safe to do so, a traditional, in-person ceremony will be held at a later date.
“We are truly living through unprecedented times,” Creed said from the Butler Chapel stage, flanked (socially distant) by vice presidents Michael Wells and Mark Hammond and founding Engineering Dean Jenna Carpenter. “A university is more than brick and mortar, curriculum and transcripts, athletic programs and social networks. It depends on people past, present and future to make up Campbell University and give it its unique identity, its strong sense of community. You graduates are the soul of Campbell University.”
Ben Thompson, a 1976 Campbell graduate, member of the 1979 charter class of the School of Law and chairman of the Campbell Board of Trustees, delivered the commencement address Saturday, recalling advice he received years ago from his father to find the good in every situation. He said that advice served him well through another national crisis, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“We asked ourselves, ‘Where is the good?’” Thompson said. “Where was God in all of this? I struggled to find both, but then I saw good in the nameless faces of the first responders, and I found God in the nation’s outpouring of support for the victims of the survivors of the attacks and the comfort that came in our nation’s grieving.”
He said in the midst of the pandemic, it’s helpful to continue to search for silver linings.
“You, the graduates, are feeling the challenge,” he said. “I believe we can see good in a fractured world by coming together to find ways to stall the progress of this deadly virus and find a vaccine.”
Thompson’s hope for the graduates was that they’d follow two lessons: Be nimble and be of service.
“To be nimble is to be quick, clever and capable of understanding and adapting to change. Right up there with gravity and the passage of time, change is certain. Those who are nimble will find the greatest satisfaction in life and the most success in the years to come,” Thompson said. “And to be of service means to be a good neighbor. In the midst of this crisi, we’re inspired by acts of kindness and services performed. From neighbors checking in on the elderly to communities organizing car parades for events that might have been missed. Restaurants finding ways to deliver meals, and frontline medical professionals risking their own health to heal the sick.
“God is in the faces of those amongst us who are serving others at this time.”
Michael Williams, a member of the charter class of engineering graduates, called Saturday a “special occasion” for him and his family. While the transition to online classes in his final semester meant the cancellation of the hands-on labs he enjoyed and several events he was looking forward to — like the annual Engineering Ball, which he was helping plan this year — he said what he missed most in the final few weeks was the “human interaction” with his classmates.
“I have made a lot of great friendships over the last four years, and it was difficult to maintain them all when I could not actually see them and talk to them face-to-face,” he said. “Technology and virtual meetings are very cool, but they do not even compare to the real thing.”
English graduate Abigail Pore said what she missed most about not being on campus the last few months was closure.
“Not being able to tell my friends ‘good bye’ in person,” she said. “Recognizing being done and being able to pack up my apartment and turn in the keys. [But] I am lucky that I get to return, not as a graduate student. I’m lucky that I can reach out to people and connect whether it’s over FaceTime, long emails with mentors or even letters. I’m lucky that I am safe and not concerned about a family member right at this moment who has the virus.
“Holding onto that and counting my blessings helps me to hold my own feelings of needing closure with the feelings of wanting the world to heal.”
Communication studies graduate Ka’Deem Wynn said he and many of his classmates are optimistic about the future, despite the bad news all around them.
“Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I think at the end of the day, everything will be alright,” he said. “When that is, I’m not sure. But I can say for myself and after talking to a lot of seniors, we know this is a unique time to be alive. We’re graduating, and the majority of us are trying to into the workforce or grad programs, and it’s difficult to do all of this when everything has been shut down.
“I’m not saying our generation is any better than the others, but I think people my age, we’ve gotten good at adapting. We’ll figure this out. It might take a little bit of time, and it’ won’t be easy. But we’ll figure it out, and we’ll succeed.”