#GraduateTogether – Celebrating the Class of 2020


Editor’s Note:  CommPRO is honored to be part of the executive / student networking forum organized by communications powerhouse, Philip Morris International senior vice president, Marian Salzman and her sister, fashion executive Jane Zemba.  Their mission, bringing graduates and executives together to create networking opportunities for the class of 2020.

As part of #GraduateTogether, I reached out to Marian and several students to share their thoughts about online graduation festivities, including the commencement speeches by former President Barack Obama.

Marian Salzman, Philip Morris International Senior Vice President

Sharing her favorite part of the commencement speech…

President Barack Obama: ” This pandemic has shaken up the status quo It’s woken a lot of young people up to the fact that the old ways of doing things just don’t work; that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; and that our society and our democracy only work when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other. ..All those adults that you used to think were in charge and knew what they were doing? Turns out that they don’t have all the answers. …So, if the world’s going to get better, it going to be up to you.”

Rachel Cantor, Northwestern University

I’m a recent 2020 graduate from Northwestern University. I majored in Communication Studies, minored in French and received a certificate in Integrated Marketing Communications from the Medill School of Journalism. I was looking forward to the end of my senior year – enjoying the warm Chicago summer, spending time with friends, listening to music and picnicking on Northwestern’s lake-fill – but none of this became a reality, and I knew that would be the case back in early march.

This past year, I ran Northwestern University’s Dance Marathon (NUDM), one of the largest student-run philanthropies in the nation. NUDM is a yearlong fundraising and service effort, culminating in a 30-hour dance-a-thon, with all the proceeds supporting our 2020 beneficiaries, Children’s Home & Aid and the Evanston Community Foundation. Serving as one of the Executive Co-Chairs was the greatest learning and leadership opportunity. I spent my entire senior year managing a 20-person executive board and over 450 committee members and planning and executing major fundraising initiatives.

Two days prior to the event, the university told us that the 30-hour dance-a-thon was cancelled due to COVID-19. I was devastated and heartbroken. How could the university cancel my favorite part of my Northwestern experience? How could they cancel an event that fundraises so much money it actually changes lives? I ultimately came to understand their decision, and although the event was cancelled (the first time in its 47 year history), NUDM raised over $1 million for Children’s Home & Aid and the Evanston Community Foundation. How we accomplished that is a story for another time.

I knew from the moment I heard the word “cancelled” that my senior year would be entirely different than I thought it would be. Little did I know that our world wouldn’t be the same. Northwestern announced that we would have an extended Spring Break, and they ultimately decided to send all students home for Spring Quarter. Thanks to our school’s quarter system, I was lucky enough credits to graduate early, so I quickly emailed my advisor and deregistered from my Spring Quarter classes. My roommates and I packed our bags and left with no return date in mind.

I was never really looking forward to my graduation ceremony. The idea of wearing a polyester purple gown while sitting in the heat, packed like sardines never really appealed to me. I was mostly looking forward to seeing my family all together and spending the last few days of college with my incredible, lifelong friends. I don’t really mind that my graduation ceremony, which takes place on June 19, is virtual. It’s not a big deal; it’s more sad than anything. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I almost don’t care anymore. I love my school. I love my friends. I love Evanston, but this has dragged on for too long. What I would like most is to be with the people I care and love.

I listened to Obama’s speech as part of the #GraduateTogether program. I found that it was just the right amount of inspiration and realism. We are all living through this time, experiencing the day to day anxieties, worries and for many, boredom. There is so much uncertainty, but with times of uncertainty come times of change. Obama believes that our generation’s time is now. We have the power to shape the world and to lead with integrity, compassion and charisma. He reminds us that we are never too young to create change. I really took his pieces of advice to heart – 1) don’t be afraid 2) do what you think is right 3) build a community. Now is the time to take risks, to fight for what’s right and to work together.

While quarantining, I’ve tried my best to follow Obama’s advice. I started expressing myself through writing again. I took a risk and launched my own personal newsletter, sharing updates, my take on pop culture and what I’m currently reading, watching and listening. I have grown my audience to almost 150 subscribers in a short period of time. I published an article on CommPRO, and I’ve been incredible grateful to have Fay Shapiro as my mentor. She has helped me discover my strengths and work towards figuring out my next steps. I have stayed in touch with my friends, and I have rekindled old friendships. I’m actively expanding my network, scheduling video calls with people who I hope to learn from and who I admire. This time is stressful. I don’t know where I’ll be in the few months. I don’t know where I’ll be working or what I’ll be doing, and although this is frustrating, I know that everything will work itself out. This time has been nothing but a learning experience and a time for growth. I’ve come to see what and who matters most to me, what kind of person I want to be and what I might want to do for this next chapter of my life. I continue to stay hopeful, and I’m grateful for my health and safety.

Emma Furrier, UMass Lowell

I am a recent 2020 graduate from UMass Lowell, majoring in English with a concentration in Journalism & Professional Writing and a minor in Digital Media Studies. The climate in which I am graduating is certainly not one that I had ever anticipated. I had always been excited that my graduating year was going to be 2020, as that seemed like such a great year, the start of a new decade and full of hope and opportunity. However, that is definitely not the case now.

My university has cancelled their commencement with no guarantee of a future ceremony, since the future is so uncertain. We are holding a virtual commencement ceremony on Friday, May 29th. While this is not the celebration that I had hoped for, I am trying to make the best of it. My family is even going to host a Zoom graduation party for me, which actually works out better than an in-person celebration because now my family from other parts of the country can attend. The university has been kind enough to provide us regalia for free, to be mailed to our homes along with programs. I was able to upload a photo and short bio about myself to be displayed as a slide when they announce my name during the virtual ceremony. I am glad that they are trying to accommodate us and make this disappointment as positive as it can be, although I would be lying if I said that it felt like enough. This whole experience has felt incredibly anticlimactic. I left campus for spring break on March 5, wishing everyone a great break and see you next week’s, only to never step foot on campus again. We received the email from our chancellor towards the end of our break, notifying us that we were to close and switch to remote learning effective the following week. It was so abrupt… one second everything was normal and the next, everything had been taken away from us with no end in sight. In terms of concluding the semester and finishing my degree, my school was incredibly accommodating and made the switch to remote learning seamless. I had taken online courses previously, which I’m sure aided my transition. Still, my finals were submitted with the click of a button and then just like that, it was all over. It still has not fully hit me yet that I have completed my undergrad, since nothing is tangible or in-person… it does not feel like it really happened, and I do not think that will sink in for a while.

I greatly enjoyed watching Obama’s speech last night during the #GraduateTogether program. His composure, class, and affirmations truly made me feel a sense of ease. He did not sugarcoat things and maintained honesty, stating the obvious that this is not ideal for anyone and we have a long road ahead of us. However, we have to look at the silver linings. We are all in this together, and are facing the same anxieties. I have been feeling immense anxiety at the prospect of the unknown, but I find comfort knowing that I am not in this alone. Graduating in a pandemic will definitely make us all grow up quicker (especially the graduating high school students as mentioned). We have the unique experience of graduating in a global pandemic, and that is something we will carry with us for the rest of our lives. It is our story to tell, and it is how we handle it and how we choose to react that will make all the difference. We may not be able to control this, but we can control how we act and respond.

Although the economic collapse and the uncertainty of the job market is not in our favor, grads can still be productive during this time. As apart of Marian’s group, I am actively expanding my network, conducting research, learning new skills (I’m currently teaching myself embroidery and how to code on python) and staying up-to-date on the current climate. As Obama mentioned, this crisis has laid bare many of our country’s faults. I have seen a rise in young people reacting to this with outrage and determination, using their online platforms to transform into activists. Even though it feels like everything has been taken away from us, it is all about perspective. There is still so much we can do, rather than sitting back and watching it all unfold. The youth are our future and so many adults (esp. in our government) seem quick to forget that. The class of 2020 is our future and I believe that we will grow stronger from this experience, together. We have all felt the same loss, while simultaneously feeling the same motivation. This experience has definitely taught me patience, and I have to rely on the fact that things will come in time. I may not get a job now, which is discouraging, but I will get a job eventually and I have to accept that. Since there have been so many layoffs, 2020 grads are not only competing with each other now, but also with professionals who have years of experience in the field and now may be forced to apply to entry level jobs. We will face more challenges than we ever expected, and obtaining a job will be much more difficult. That is discouraging, but like I said, I am trying to find the silver linings.

James Murphy, University of Miami

This pandemic has really brought to my attention just how quickly things can change and how nothing is guaranteed. I was very eager to graduate into a job market characterizes by a record setting economy and the lowest level of unemployment in a while. It was initially upsetting to see just how quickly this situation could be disrupted and how the impact would be so pervasive. After enduring nine weeks of quarantine, I am trying to approach this situation as a new opportunity. I will have to pivot, and embrace the “new normal”, as I start my career. Starting my career remotely isn’t exactly how I pictured it, however, enduring and adapting will make me a stronger person and will shape how I approach adversity and obstacles going forward.

What are the leadership lessons? 

The pandemic presented an interesting expose on state and federal government leadership and various styles of leadership.  The personal visibility of political leaders provided by daily press briefings, combined with the lack of alternative international, social, or sports news, has shown me the impact of visual and interactive media to influence the public’s perceptions and opinions.  I recently finished a semester long college course, focused solely on strategic leadership in business, where we learned that leader’s often emerge, or are at least more appreciated, in times  of change and crisis.  The deal with the change by embracing it and adapting behavior, especially in the face of a crisis, and forces outside out their control. This is a chance for all leaders to embrace the situation and to find new an innovative ways to maintain a successful business.


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