Nearly 900 SUNY Potsdam Graduates Awarded Degrees in Virtual Ceremony
SUNY Potsdam recognized the achievements of nearly 900 graduates in the College’s 200th Commencement on Saturday, May 23. The virtual ceremony and accompanying watch party was filled with joyful comments and tributes, as graduates, families, students, faculty, staff and alumni shared their memories and congratulated the Class of 2020.
Streamed online via Facebook and YouTube, the event helped the SUNY Potsdam community to come together from far-flung places for a celebration of achievement and unity that honored the efforts of those receiving their bachelor’s and master’s degrees — until the College is able to safely hold an in-person ceremony. In her remarks, College President Dr. Kristin Esterberg acknowledged the unique challenges the graduates have faced in the rapid transition to distance learning, made necessary by a pandemic that has also taken a broad emotional toll.
“More than anything, I wish you were here with me today in the Quad, with your family, your friends, your faculty and staff all cheering you on and celebrating your accomplishments,” Esterberg said. “Even though we cannot be together in person, we must not let this day go unmarked. You are finishing your studies under the most difficult of circumstances. Many of you have had unfathomable losses over the last few months. And yet, you persisted.”
Esterberg highlighted the skills and traits the graduates can now bring forward to help solve pressing issues, and she pointed to the importance of science in confronting disease and suffering, of ethical and thoughtful citizenship, and of the increasingly vital ability to differentiate between truth and fiction.
“You have that capacity— to save lives by your actions, to solve intractable problems, to develop innovative strategies, and to help secure the future for other generations,” she said.
The President reflected that this unprecedented crisis has revealed just how vital the sciences, social sciences, humanities, arts and education are to our society and world—and how critical they will be to our collective recovery. She praised the graduates as being historic, not only as the institution’s 200th graduating class, but also for their resiliency.
“For over 200 years, the SUNY Potsdam community has remained strong, and together, we have always risen to the challenge. Today is no exception,” she said. “So to you, the historic Class of 2020, I wish you the very best. You are entering into uncharted territory. But I have great faith in you, because you have shown what you are made of. You are as sturdy as Potsdam sandstone, and as creative as those who first used that durable stone to create magnificent structures. You are magnificent, and you are historic.”
Student Government Association President Kalis Nunes ’20 urged his fellow graduates to forge ahead through a time that can seem hopeless and unfair, focusing instead on hard work and showing the kind of leadership the world needs right now.
“We are the graduating class of the year 2020, and since 20/20 means perfect vision, it is clear that our futures are in plain sight and in arm’s reach. Now, I may not actually have 20/20 vision myself, and can barely read my professors’ handwriting on the board, or even the words on the PowerPoint slides, but I can clearly see the vast potential you all hold. I can see all of the hard work, dedication, perseverance and hunger you have for success, and I can say with confidence that this is just the tip of the iceberg of what we have in store for the world,” Nunes told his classmates.
He talked about his upbringing in New York City within a Trinidadian household — memories of a hard-working mother who inspired him, a father who urged him to “never be a follower; always be a leader,” and even with this encouragement, his own long struggle for self-actualization as a gay Black student leader.
“These words shaped my entire being, by allowing me to always go for the things I wanted, shooting for the stars, and reminding myself that the sky isn't the limit,” he said. “This is something I want you all to remember, that your potential is limitless, and that there isn’t anything you cannot do.”
Taiawenton:ti Chelsea Sunday ’16, of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation, recited the Ohen:ton Karikwatekhwen (“The words before all else”) greeting in the Mohawk language and in English translation, a stirring reminder of the importance of Indigenous heritage in the North Country and of SUNY Potsdam’s location within traditional Mohawk territory. Also leading a celebration of diversity were the Potsdam Pointercounts, led by Sekayi Williams ’19, singing “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” a hymn of hope and liberation often called the “Black national anthem.”
Provost and Senior Vice President for Academics Dr. Bette Bergeron welcomed the Class of 2020, noting the historic nature of the ceremony’s virtual format.
“While behind you is 200 years of history and you are living through a historic health pandemic, know that ahead of you is a blank page for you to write your own history,” Bergeron said. “The tools that you have at your disposal are your SUNY Potsdam education coupled with your persistence and determination.”
This year, local businesses joined in celebrating the graduates by displaying posters with messages of congratulations, and alumni from coast to coast sent handwritten notes to the graduates as part of Commencement packages that also included posters and laudatory letters from campus leaders and state representatives. Graduates are also being sent videotaped remarks by U.S. Sen. Chuck Schumer, Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul, Congresswoman Elise Stefanik and SUNY Chancellor Kristina Johnson.
The national anthems of Canada and the United States were sung by music education majors Dominique Santiago ’20 and Allison Brault ’20, respectively, and the traditional singing of the “Alma Mater,” led by music education major Chris Sarkis ’20, a concluding feature of the ceremony accompanied by the Crane Alumni Band.
To find out more about Commencement at SUNY Potsdam, visit www.potsdam.edu/commencement.
About SUNY Potsdam:
Founded in 1816, The State University of New York at Potsdam is one of America’s first 50 colleges—and the oldest institution within SUNY. Now in its third century, SUNY Potsdam is distinguished by a legacy of pioneering programs and educational excellence. The College currently enrolls approximately 3,600 undergraduate and graduate students. Home to the world-renowned Crane School of Music, SUNY Potsdam is known for its challenging liberal arts and sciences core, distinction in teacher training and culture of creativity. To learn more, visit www.potsdam.edu.