DANVERS — With the need to keep faculty, staff and students safe and comply with social distancing guidelines due the COVID-19 public health emergency, North Shore Community College streamed its 54th commencement Thursday night, the first time the college has ever held a virtual graduation ceremony.
While the commencement did not allow the 865 graduates to walk across the stage in the O'Keefe Center at Salem State University, as they normally would, the university did its best to give them a sense of their accomplishment of being able to finish a degree remotely during the pandemic.
"It was a difficult decision to give up our in-person ceremony and go virtual," said outgoing President Patricia Gentile, "as we all know how much it means to you to walk across the stage in front of your friends and family in order to celebrate your great achievement."
Nothing can take away their achievement of overcoming the impacts from the coronavirus, she said.
Gentile said they had to think creatively to celebrate students' achievements, and said there will be an opportunity in the future where they will be invited back to participate in a traditional face-to-face ceremony.
"Many of you will become the essential workers that have kept us safe all throughout this pandemic," Gentile said. "The nurses, the health care professionals, information technologists, police officers, firefighters and entrepreneurs. You will make a positive impact on the North Shore and beyond."
More than 660 viewers watched the livestream on YouTube. Viewers also had the ability to chat live and the ceremony included a video preshow of faculty and staff giving encouraging messages to students after the college switched to online learning in March.
Former Democratic presidential candidate and current U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren recorded a keynote address, telling graduates how they respond to these extraordinary times is their choice.
"In times of great upheaval it can be easy to let fear, anxiety and hopelessness rule the day," Warren said. "And there is a lot to be afraid of right now. But today, just for a few moments, as we mark this monumental achievement, I offer you this: How you respond to this extraordinary time is your choice, so choose resilience and creativity over hopelessness and fear."
Warren drew on her own experiences in Oklahoma when encouraging graduates "to make real change in our country" in the criminal justice system, the legacy of systemic racism, and the inequities laid bare by the pandemic.
"You didn't get here because somebody gave it to you," Warren said. "I know how that feels. I dropped out of school at 19, got married and thought I'd lost my chance to become a teacher. But I didn't give up. I ended up at a commuter college and eventually made it into the classroom, first teaching special ed and later teaching law." She told graduates they have one thing in common, "you've fought for everything you've ever gotten."
Student speaker Larissa Louissaint of Hamilton, who became a student leader on campus and maintained a 4.0 grade point average, spoke about the challenge of being the first in her family to attend a four-year university. Having been bullied in high school, she wanted to address "loopholes and parts of the legal system that are not working."
She was accepted to pre-law college programs, but unable to afford them, and facing a full gap year, she stumbled on North Shore Community College's website and its paralegal program. At first she kept to herself, but later became involved and won vice presidencies of Culture and Inclusion for the Student Government Association, Leadership for Phi Theta Kappa and the Multi-Cultural Society.
Being a leader in these groups "gave me the opportunity to learn to lead, gain confidence and finally the ability to look at myself and say that I am a leader." In the fall, she plans to transfer to Suffolk University to study law.
This was the last commencement exercise for Gentile, who has led North Shore Community College for seven years.
"She will be deeply missed, yet she is leaving our college in a very strong position to face the road ahead," said J.D. LaRock, chairperson of the community college's board of trustees.