After COVID-19 restrictions forced the Class of 2020’s traditional ceremony to go virtual, they and their peers from the Class of ’21 gathered excitedly under the lights of Memorial Stadium in caps and gowns to honor what they have accomplished despite the obstacles of a pandemic. Along with a kaleidoscope of sashes and decorative mortarboards, the students’ graduation garb included masks. Facial coverings and health screenings were required of attendees.
“These two classes are quite remarkable, and not just because they continued their education through a pandemic,” said President Linda Oubré in her opening speech. “Within these classes we have artists and athletes, activists and scientists, dedicated scholars and talented performers, educators and entrepreneurs. These students came from all over the country and all over the world, and many of them come from the most beautiful and innovative region in the world, right here in Southern California.”
Oubré added that some of the members of these classes have earned their first advanced degree—and that undoubtably, given their persistence and talent, they will earn more.
That goes for student speaker Noah Humphrey ’20, who’s currently a graduate student at Yale Divinity School and a published author. His goal is to combine his experience in ministry with his aspirations in chiropractic health to combine prayer with medical practice. He encouraged his peers to never mistake their potential: “You have the power to do anything that you hold your mind to.”
“This means so much to me—because I could not have done this on my own,” he said. “I am a grandson of a Black Panther. My mom served this nation. My dad was a postmaster. Where I come from, you don’t have these many opportunities. When I first came here after football practice, I studied from 6 o’clock p.m. to midnight every night. I made the study room my home, because I knew if I go back there—if I go back to South Central L.A.—I won’t have a life. I am here today to show that you can put everything you have into it. That there is something that brings, within you, strength.”
His speech included a shout-out to Connie Morales ’20, who Humphrey later helped across the stage to the cheers of the Poet community. She had earned her bachelor’s despite the challenges of mitochondrial disease, requiring her to use a wheelchair and ventilator. She’s now studying for a master’s degree in screenwriting.
“She has more inspiration, more power, more strength than what I could ever have,” Humphrey said.
Both he and the Class of 2021 student speaker, Bianca Zermeno ’21, acknowledged lives lost during the pandemic.
“I want to take this time to offer my condolences to the students and families that are forced to celebrate differently today,” Zermeno said. “We are all so proud of you.”
She added that she felt honored to be surrounded by passionate and inspiring individuals.
“There are first-generation students walking for their families today; those who have struggled with disabilities and mental health, unsure if they’d ever get this moment; and those who have seen discrimination and injustice, working endless nights for this moment,” she said. “All those every day, small victories of getting things done or just surviving the day on this journey was for this breath of accomplishment and relief that you now can take.”
Zermeno also thanked the College president, faculty, and staff who had supported them and inspired them to think critically from different perspectives and who “listened to our thoughts and ideas.” She has taken the knowledge, value, and experience from her time at Whittier into the next chapter of her education; this fall, she began earning her MBA with a concentration in marketing.
Miguel Santana ’91, CEO of Weingart Foundation and the first Latinx chair of the College’s Board of Trustees, spoke on a similar theme of the enduring impact that his Whittier experience has had. The lessons he learned “seeded the values” that he holds true today and guided his decisions and work ever since.
“On behalf of the Board, I want to state that we are very grateful for each and every one of you,” he said. “You have demonstrated unprecedented resilience, adaptability, and grit. You all deserve a round of applause.”
Watch the ceremony on YouTube and see photos from the event on the Whittier College Instagram and Facebook.