Zoë Barnswell ’20 with her aunt, Florence D. Simmons, and godfather, Bernard J. Lewis
Beverly Schaefer
More than 1,100 alumni return for the chance to graduate in person

More than two years after the Class of 2020 abruptly left Princeton because of the emerging COVID-19 pandemic, most classmates returned to campus on May 18 for their second Commencement ceremony, this time held in person at Princeton Stadium. About 84 percent of undergraduates and 23 percent of master’s and Ph.D. recipients attended.

The weather was perfect, with sunny skies and temperatures in the mid-60s, “and after two years, you deserve it,” quipped President Eisgruber ’83, who presided over the ceremony. There was just enough wind to concern valedictorian Nicholas Johnson ’20 that his speech might blow away. It did not.

“I think a lot of the Class of 2020 felt like we were missing a bit of closure. So to get to come back and be together and celebrate our Commencement was a really special moment.” — Zoë Barnswell ’20

Johnson, Princeton’s first Black valedictorian, addressed the peculiar circumstances of the event in his second valedictory. Despite a hasty departure from Princeton during a time of global upheaval, Johnson said, “we stepped up as a class. We maintained and continued to build our community. We supported one another through grief, heartache, and distress. And ultimately, we persevered in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. And look at us now.” (Listen to PAW’s 2020 interview with Johnson at bit.ly/2020val.) 

Eisgruber said that “no previous class has shown your unique combination of persistence, achievement, and patience.” Toward the end of his remarks, he shared a hope, or perhaps a challenge, for the graduates. “Some people speculate that the events of the last two years might weaken the bonds that tie you together,” he said. “I predict the opposite: that your resilience and creativity will make your connections to each other and your entanglement with Old Nassau ever stronger.”

Songtian Sonia Zhang *20
Songtian Sonia Zhang *20
Beverly Schaefer

Only time will tell, but the graduates were certainly happy to be celebrating with family and friends.

“I’ve kind of been waiting for this my whole life,” said Songtian Sonia Zhang *20, who received her Ph.D. in physics. 

Bhadrajee Hewage ’20, who received his bachelor’s degree in history, traveled from Oxford, England, to be at the ceremony. “During the pandemic, we were robbed of all this opportunity. So, it’s nice to be back [and] see everyone you haven’t seen in a few years — to reconnect,” he said. 

The world looked much different the last time the class gathered around screens to stream their virtual Commencement in 2020. When Sophia Paredes ’20 graduated, “she was far away,” said her mother, Anna Hochkammer. “She finished far away, and she finished in a very frightening time.”

In the two years since receiving her bachelor’s in computer science, Zoë Barnswell ’20 moved to New York City to work in software development at JPMorgan Chase. She appreciated the chance to return to campus. “I think a lot of the Class of 2020 felt like we were missing a bit of closure,” she said, “so to get to come back and be together and celebrate our Commencement was a really special moment.”

When asked what it meant to be able to see Barnswell graduate at the in-person ceremony, her godfather, Bernard J. Lewis, said simply: “The world.”