Graduating students from NRI at the University of Greenwich would normally be welcomed warmly into the lofty grandeur of nearby Rochester Cathedral for the formal ceremony. Families and friends file in to take their places on the wooden pews and there would be an expectant hush as the Professors and University grandees resplendent in floor-length gowns, assumed their places on the raised dais facing the congregation.
This year, Covid-19 has changed everything and the University has adapted quickly to the ‘new normal’ by organising a virtual Graduation Day 2020 online, with a series of pre-recorded speeches and live contributions from students and staff.
The ceremony for NRI and Engineering and Science graduates kicked off at 1000BST with Chancellor Paul Boateng making a passionate and inspirational call to students. He said: “we’ve never needed your passion, your youth and your intelligence more than we need it now”, asking students to, “look to the times to come, knowing that you go out into the world, better equipped than ever, to shape it.”
Bilal Ijaz, President of the Greenwich Student Union described attending university as: “a journey when we learn, grow and make new friends.” He empathised with the difficulties brought about by the Covid pandemic and subsequent lockdown, telling the listening students, “you’ve made it, I don’t know how, and today your friends and family aren’t celebrating a piece of paper – they’re celebrating you.”
Bilal went onto to implore the students to use their talents to “create a new world”. He said, “we have the power to fight for a more equal society for everyone. I wish I could tell you what will happen next, but it’s a book that has not been written yet. Take some time to reflect on the values that matter to you, you’ll all make the University of Greenwich proud and know that you’re always welcome here.”
Professor Jane Harrington, University Vice Chancellor acknowledged how different this year’s celebration must feel to the graduating students, assuring them that, “even though I’m really sad we can’t celebrate on campus, I promise that as soon as it’s safe to do so, you will have a fantastic celebration with your friends and family.”
She then struck a more personal note: “some of you are the first in your family to graduate – just like I was. Some of you have commuted long distances to study, you may have had financial struggles. But you kept on going though this pandemic, despite everything. You have every right to be very proud of your achievements and the resilience you have shown.”
Professor Harrington spoke about NRI winning a prestigious Queen’s Anniversary Prize earlier in the year for its groundbreaking work on ‘smart pest control’. She recalled the unforgettable day spent at Buckingham Palace with NRI’s winning staff and students and receiving the award from HRH the Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall. NRI’s other recent success of winning funding from the Growing Kent and Medway’s Strength in Places project also got a mention, as did the donation of vital PPE to the NHS during the early weeks of lockdown.
The Vice Chancellor ended her speech with a rallying call for students, to “stay calm and focused and remember what you have to offer. I have absolutely no doubt that you are ready for what lies ahead. You will be fantastic. Be confident, be proud, be caring, aim high and be led by the values you have. Take inspiration from those who have gone before.”
NRI’s Director, Professor Andrew Westby welcomed “graduates, families, friends and staff who are watching”, before reading out each individual’s name as the different groups appeared live on screen. He encouraged everyone to applaud and to celebrate their successes.
For the class of 2020, graduation day may have been different, but it still managed to be an affirming and formal milestone moment, and as the applause broke out and students waved and smiled into their webcams, there was a moment of absolute unity and joy.
To have graduated successfully during one of the most unprecedented and worrying times in recent history, shows perseverance and grit, and today’s virtual ceremony is testament to that.
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