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Knox College Commencement 2020

Sixteen months past the original date, the class of 2020 finally had Knox’s 175th Commencement exercises, in person, on the South Lawn of Old Main. On June 8th, 2020, the 275 now graduated seniors had a virtual graduation, with the promise of an in person Commencement in June 2021. That date was delayed again to October 10th, 2021, when roughly 110 members from the class of 2020 met once again, perhaps for the first time since they left campus. Many of the graduates found the ceremony to be an official marking of their success, and are happy that their family and friends could participate in the occasion with them in person. 

The graduates and their families were welcomed to Commencement by Tony Etz '83, Chairman of the Knox Board of Trustees. Etz is a fourth-generation Knox College graduate. During his remarks, he emphasized, “All of us graduates of this great college are bound together forever in this community, and I hope that you’ll keep us close.”

Following a performance by the Knox College Choir, President Andrew McGadney presented his address to the graduating class. After thanking the graduates’ families, friends, mentors, and Knox faculty and staff, President McGadney spoke directly to the graduates. “I am so proud of each and every one of you, and I can’t wait to get to know you better during future moments on campus, and across the country and the globe. Please know you will always be a part of the Knox community, and I look forward to partnering with you as we make this great institution even better, together, for future generations.”

Knox graduate Nyerere Billups, class of 1999, delivered the Commencement address. Billups is the director of portfolio program management operations for AbbVie, Inc., an American publicly traded research-based biopharmaceutical company founded in 2011. He is responsible for driving continuous improvements in R&D governance and R&D pipeline performance reporting, and has spent most of his career working in research. 

Billups has received multiple certifications in leadership and strategic management from Cornell University’s Johnson Graduate School of Management. He joined the Knox Board of Trustees in 2016 as an alumni trustee, and became a general trustee in June of 2020. He serves on the admission and campus life and athletics committees, the committee on board diversity, and has also served on the nominating committee and the most recent presidential search committee. He volunteers as a Knox alumni mentor, is part of his class’ leadership team, and is involved in the Black Alumni Network (BAN).

“This moment, the gravity of it, it's with me as the same time I sat where you sat,” said Billups. “I’ve been dealing with adversity since I arrived on February 12th, 1977. But I’m here to tell you today that life isn’t what happened to you, it’s how you respond to the things that happen in life,” said Billups. 

Billups’ message for the class of 2020 was “The one thing that nobody can ever take from each of you as individuals is the magnitude of who you are. The one thing that’s in your control is the magnitude of who I am.”

“So I leave you with these simple words. Use everything that you’ve gone through as your setup for you to step up and for you to show up.”

Honorary degree recipients include Brian Wallach and Sandra Abrevaya, the founders of I AM ALS, a patient-led, patient-centric movement created to find a cure for ALS after Brian was diagnosed with the disease. “Never doubt your own power, especially when you are facing long odds. Never doubt the value of your voice and your lived experience…never doubt that you can change the world. Take it from this old guy, the world needs some changes,” said Wallach. 

The attendees also listened to remarks from senior class speaker, Kylie Linh Hoang '20. Hoang majored in history and minored in environmental studies and museum studies. Hoang acknowledged the determination that the Class of 2020 demonstrated in their first year in 2016 after the presidential election. Students worked to embrace each other’s differences and support each other amidst political shifts, and again in their last year as many struggled in virtual spaces among the difficulties of the pandemic. “Knox was far from a perfect campus, but it was the first place that I ever felt like everyone made an honest effort to be good to each other,” said Hoang.

“My hope for the class is that we take these experiences and we use them to bring good to all of the new communities we join and build,” said Hoang. “I hope that we as a class are remembered for being a force of good in the world.”

Former Knox College President Teresa Amott delivered some remarks summing up the spirit of the class of 2020: “Class of 2020, I can see you in my mind’s eye: I remember your energy, how hard you worked in the classroom, on the playing fields, in the library and the lab. I remember how much you cared for one another, how you fell in love with ideas, with places, with causes. I remember your passionate embrace of dignity, justice, sustainability, knowledge, and community.”

Amott retired in June 2021 after over 40 years in education, 10 of which were at Knox. She says she has stronger “hope and faith” than ever before in the class of 2020, after the hardships of the past 18 months. “Take away from this Commencement ceremony our abiding hope and faith that you will be the next Greatest Generation. That you will heal a troubled world, avert a climate catastrophe, advance the frontiers of scientific knowledge, bring refuge to the millions displaced by violence or persecution, address the root causes of systemic isms and widen the circle of inclusion so that all may experience security, prosperity, dignity and justice. This work will not be easy, but you are up to it, I know. You are Knox graduates: go forth and change the world, Class of 2020. I wish you well.”

Each graduate's name was announced by Michael Schneider, Provost and Dean of the College, as they walked across the stage to shake President McGadney’s hand. Graduates and their families took a moment of silence when the name of Fazley Shebaz Chowdhury was read, in memoriam. He passed in December of 2020.

Tianna Cervantez '06, Executive Director for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion and Director of Intercultural Life, concluded the ceremony. “I am inspired. Inspired by you and all the awesome life-changing work I know you are prepared to do in this world,” she said.

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Printed on Monday, October 25, 2021