Published on April 27, 2021 by Sarah Waller  
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Rain fell throughout the morning hours of April 24, threatening to cancel Samford University’s outdoor celebration of its Class of 2020. But just as the gates of Seibert Stadium were scheduled to open for alumni and their guests, the clouds parted and the sun broke through.

The ceremony, along with the reception that followed, became another memorial milestone of Samford’s Class of 2020. After a year like no other, causing the commencement ceremonies for both spring and winter graduates to be virtual, approximately 275 alumni returned to campus, to wear their regalia, walk across the commencement stage and celebrate with faculty and their peers.

“It was incredibly moving to look out from the stage and see so many of our 2020 graduates, knowing the perseverance and resilience they have exhibited in finishing their degrees in the midst of a global pandemic,” said Randy Pittman, vice president for university advancement. “It was a joy to celebrate them in this way.”

University President Andrew Westmoreland served as the ceremony’s keynote speaker.

“As much as I would like to think otherwise, your class is probably destined for all time to be remembered as the COVID class.  And since that is likely to be one of your enduring legacies at Samford, perhaps it is time to own it rather than disparage it,” he said. 

Over the past year, Westmoreland said he saw three distinct and important lessons emerge.

Lesson One: Flexibility is a prize worth keeping.

Westmoreland admitted that when the university announced last year that it would move to online instruction, he thought two weeks would do the trick. (He paused to laugh at this.) “We adapted, each of us in our own way, and we kept adapting. Quickly we learned that many of the things we thought were important weren’t very important at all. The health of the people we loved—that was important,” he said.

Lesson Two: We are more resilient than we knew.   

Here, Westmoreland commented, is where Samford people shined the most, making him feel weepy with pride. “You never gave up, and you never stopped believing in yourselves and the people around you,” he said. “Throughout your lives, as you face crises that will be painful and inevitable, you’ll stop for a moment and you’ll say, perhaps, ‘I’m a member of the COVID Class of 2020, and I have faced much worse than this.’ You will lift your head and your spirit will soar, and you will overcome whatever is placed in your path.”

Lesson Three:  Relationships matter more than we imagined

In April last year, Westmoreland said the thought crossed his mind: What if students and their families prefer their education online, no longer desiring the in-person experience he felt was crucial to a well-rounded education. But just has he began to lament at this negative thought, the Samford community proved that he was wrong.

“I realized that our challenges with COVID didn’t chip away at the essential appreciation of the Samford experience; instead, it reinforced the significance of Samford relationships for each of us,” he said. “To be in proximity to others; to shake hands; to hug; to sit in small groups in classrooms, taught by gifted faculty… to establish the basis for friendships that will last until our dying days; to sit in the shade of trees we did not plant… these are the things we treasure and they are not diminished by a virus that, for many in the audience today, has caused so much personal pain.” 

“We are not defeated, and we have learned—and I am glad that we have learned—that relationships matter more than we imagined,” he said.

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Hon. Stephen Dillard ’92, president of Samford University’s Alumni Association, shared remarks and invited attendees to a reception immediately following the ceremony on the Quad.

Samford is a leading Christian university offering undergraduate programs grounded in the liberal arts with an array of nationally recognized graduate and professional schools. Founded in 1841, Samford is the 87th-oldest institution of higher learning in the United States. Samford enrolls 5,791 students from 49 states, Puerto Rico and 16 countries in its 10 academic schools: arts, arts and sciences, business, divinity, education, health professions, law, nursing, pharmacy and public health. Samford fields 17 athletic teams that compete in the tradition-rich Southern Conference and ranks 6th nationally for its Graduation Success Rate among all NCAA Division I schools.