University President Michael V. Drake delivers his commencement address to Ohio State’s class of 2020 via livestream from an empty Ohio Stadium. Credit: Courtesy of Ohio State

On a day the stands of Ohio Stadium should have been teeming with graduates and their proud families, it sat almost empty and silent, save for a white tent, a podium and a microphone.

Instead, Ohio State’s class of 2020 — the university’s largest graduating class to date — celebrated commencement Sunday from their laptops. It was the first of the 424 commencement ceremonies in the university’s history to be held virtually, Melissa Shivers, vice president for student life, said. 

Joining remotely, commencement speaker and Apple CEO Tim Cook reminded graduates that their achievements are not diminished by the conditions of the ceremony.

“In every age, life has a frustrating way of reminding us that we are not the sole authors of our story,” Cook said. “We must share credit, whether we’d like to or not, with a difficult and selfish collaborator called our circumstances.”

The university awarded 12,967 degrees and certificates to the class of 2020, according to a university press release. With a 6.1 percent increase from 2019, the class of 2020 continued the university’s streak of largest graduating classes for the sixth consecutive year.

“The increase in the size of the graduating class corresponds with annual increases in the quality and talent of the freshman class and increases in graduation rates,” the release reads.

The hour-long ceremony, broadcasted on WOSU and public television stations and livestreamed on the university’s website, featured student speaker and outgoing Undergraduate Student Government President Kate Greer, a fourth-year in German and European history.

“I don’t know where all of you are right now, and I can’t pretend to know what you might be going through in the light of this crisis. Many of us may be struggling to feel the Buckeye spirit, but I hope you remember this,” Greer said. “It’s the sound of the ‘O-H-I-O’ chant circling around the stadium, and The Best Damn Band in the Land marching down the tunnel onto the field. It is the feeling of walking out of class having learned something that fascinates you to no end.”

Sunday’s commencement came after the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancelation of all university events until July 6. After originally postponing commencement indefinitely March 17, the university announced April 3 that a virtual ceremony would be held on its original date, with graduates receiving their diplomas in the mail and an in-person ceremony to be held later.

According to the Ohio State commencement website, the mailing of diplomas cannot be coordinated until “it is safe to return to campus” under Ohio’s stay-at-home order. University President Michael V. Drake told The Lantern April 23 that the university plans to gradually allow faculty and staff to return to campus in the coming weeks. 

Included in the almost 13,000 degrees and certificates are 9,740 Bachelors and Associates degrees, 1,983 Masters, 983 graduate professional degrees and 261 doctorates.

Cook told graduates the university community was looking to them for the future.

“Think anew, act anew, build a better future than the one you thought was certain,” Cook said. 

In addition to awarding degrees, the university recognized Dr. E. Christopher Ellison, surgeon at the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State; Philip Daniel, faculty scholar in residence of the department of Education Studies; and Timothy Gerber, professor emeritus of the School of Music, as recipients of the Distinguished Service Award. For the Distinguished Service award, the university Board of Trustees chooses “individuals who have rendered exceptional service to the university,” according to the university awards website.

Drake, who announced his retirement in November, acknowledged that in sending off the graduates, the commencement was also a send-off for himself as university president. He quoted poet Rabindranath Tagore in his address.

“I slept and dreamt of joy. I awoke and saw that life was service,” Drake said. “Serving at the Ohio State University has been a blessing and a privilege. Serving at the Ohio State University has been a joy.”

As she acknowledged that COVID-19 has impacted students and their families in countless ways, Greer asked the graduates to think of virtual commencement as more normal than they may have thought.

“We may all be spread out across the world, but wasn’t that the way it was always supposed to happen after we got our diplomas?” she asked. “After May 3, 2020, pandemic or not, we were always meant to go our separate ways. We just happened to start the process a little early.”