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As the novel coronavirus pandemic prompted nationwide school closures that deprived graduating students of commencement ceremonies, myriad Hollywood stars and famous figures are doing their part to ensure the class of 2020 is still celebrated.
During the multihour live-stream event, inspirational leaders, stars and creators joined the celebration, including Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Shonda Rhimes, Demi Lovato, Jennifer Lopez, Kelly Rowland, Kevin Durant, Lady Gaga, Finneas, Bill and Melinda Gates, Alicia Keys, Zendaya and more.
Lizzo kicked off the event by playing the graduation song alongside the New York Philharmonic. Keys then delivered an inspiring message to graduates who may not feel like celebrating after enduring a “hard week.”
“I know right now it might not feel like there’s a lot to celebrate and that’s OK. It’s OK to not be OK right now. I know so many people are not thinking about your time at school,” Keys said in opening, addressing the ongoing nationwide protests following the killing of George Floyd on May 25.
Keys praised any students who had worked to make sure their voices were heard amid a time when “the world feels broken. … There’s nothing and no one that can stop you from changing the world. I see you. You’re unstoppable,” the singer said.
Later, Timberlake also shared some words for graduating students, saying that “in the face of obstacles, we have the great ability to surprise ourselves with how the spirit fights back. We watched you do that, class of 2020.”
The Obamas each delivered commencement speeches — as well as a joint message — to this year’s graduates.
“Today is the culmination of a long journey. Think back to where you were starting your first year. … Just as you were rounding the final turn, the world turned a pandemic your way,” Barack Obama said.
Michelle Obama went on to celebrate students who have had to “reach even higher,” whether it be letting their siblings use the computer while still having to take finals or supporting their loved ones amid the ongoing pandemic. “That’s a lot to ask of anybody,” she said.
“You all have done something great. Hold your heads up high and celebrate.”
Barack Obama’s commencement speech comes after the former president spoke to the nation in a virtual town hall hosted by the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance on Wednesday titled “Reimagining Policing in the Wake of Continued Police Violence.” The discussion centered on the tragic events of recent weeks, racial bias in the criminal justice system, and specific steps needed to bring about meaningful change.
“We have seen in the last several weeks, last fews months, the kind of epic changes and events in our country that are as profound as I’ve seen in my lifetime,” he said. Though acknowledging the “pain, uncertainty, disruption” that people are feeling in the wake of recent tragedies, Obama expressed his condolences to the family of George Floyd and the “disproportionate loss of life in communities of color.”
In his own speech later on YouTube, he said: “As scary and uncertain as these times may be, they are also a wake-up call and they’re an incredible opportunity for your generation because you don’t have to accept what was considered normal before. You don’t have to accept the world as it is. You can make it into the world as it should be and could be. You can create a new normal, one that is fairer and gives everybody opportunity and treats everyone equally and builds bridges between people instead of dividing them.”
He continued: “Just as America overcame slavery in the Civil War, recessions and depression, Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and all kinds of social upheaval, we can emerge from our current circumstances stronger than before, better than before. But as has always been true at key moments in history, it’s going t depend on young people like you to go out there and rewrite what is possible.”
He also encouraged them to help stop the spread of falsehoods and conspiracy theories that can permeate social media about topics like COVID-19 and racist stereotypes. “Social media can also be a tool to spread conflict, division and falsehoods to bully people and promote hate,” he said.
Earlier, Michelle Obama delivered a speech on her own, in which she addressed the ongoing nationwide protests and the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Beyoncé also shared a powerful speech in which she thanked students for using their “collective voice” to show that Black Lives Matter.
Taylor Swift celebrated the graduating class as well and shared that she missed out on her own graduation ceremony as well, while on a radio tour. “I found myself on radio tour with my mom in rental cars, sitting on the floors of airports and ended up getting my diploma mailed. One good lesson is to expect the unexpected and celebrate anyway,” she said.
For a humorous break amid serious and inspiring speeches, the cast of Schitt’s Creek appeared to celebrate the class of 2020 as well as teachers, all while in character. From Catherine O’Hara’s Moira Rose offering eloquent words to Dan Levy’s David Rose shouting over everyone about his headphones not working — it was a sweet and funny group tribute not just to students graduating this year, but those who educated them.
The group then sang Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and were soon joined by the Grammy-winning singer herself. “To all the teachers and professors, especially the ones who had to deal with students like me who never really showed up on school at time, you rose to the occasion and helped these students reach the finish line,” Carey said.
“To the students who had to deal with this bleak moment, congratulations on this historic accomplishment,” she added. “To all the teachers and students, you are so appreciated and I just want to say Class of 2020, you made it!”
Stephen Colbert also joined the Dear Class of 2020 virtual event to emphasize that while students today are facing uncertain times and would very much wish to be with family to celebrate this moment, there’s an “important lesson” to be learned from this experience.
“Now, I know you want to be with your friends right now or to celebrate the culmination of all the hard work you’ve done. You deserve that and your family deserves it, too,” Colbert said. “I know that they want nothing more than to cheer you on … and then to hold your face in their hands and to tell you how much they love you and how proud they are of the adult you’ve become.”
“These strange times have given you an important lesson, albeit maybe a little too soon. It’s that being an adult often isn’t about doing what you want to do. It’s about doing what’s right for everybody,” Colbert continued. “Your entire generation is already doing it. You’re making a sacrifice right now that in very real ways is saving lives, lives of people you’ve never even met. It’s natural that you may be worried about the future, what’s on the other side of this pandemic. But know that your generation is equal to this moment and to the unprecedented opportunity for change that is coming. Before any great creation, there will always be chaos. Now go find your new order in it.”
Meanwhile, Lady Gaga had some impassioned words for graduates. Gaga began by saying she recorded a different commencement speech that “reflected the shared experience” with COVID-19 that the Class of 2020 has had. After George Floyd was murdered, though, she realized that she had much more to say about the Black Lives Matter movement and protests.
She began, “My speech was recorded before the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent activist movement … while my original commencement speech may not be directly relevant to what this country most needs right now, I wish to tell you today that though there is much to be sad about, there is also much to be celebrated. You are watching what is a pivotal moment in this [country’s] evolution … change will happen and it will be for the better.”
Gaga went on to illustrate a metaphor of American society as a forest: one was planted with racist seeds that grew discriminatory branches and leaves over the years. “This forest is where we live. It’s who we are. It’s the morals and value system that we as a society have upheld for centuries,” she said.
“But we are being invited to challenge that system,” Gaga continued. “I believe in my heart that the people who are going to make this change happen are listening to this speech right now. You are the seeds that will grow into a new and different forest that is far more beautiful [than the one we live in right now].”
Numerous stars served as commencement speakers including Beyoncé, BTS, Lady Gaga, former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, CEO of Alphabet and Google Sundar Pichai, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and Malala Yousafzai. Katy Perry, BTS, Camila Cabello, Chloe x Halle, CNCO, Doja Cat, Gaga, Lizzo, Maluma and Meghan Thee Stallion performed during the event.
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