Charlotte Powell (left) and London Hughes carry on the graduation tradition of wearing HokieBird feet at the online commencement ceremony. Powell and Hughes both performed as the HokieBird mascot during their time at Virginia Tech.
Commencement 2020 was one for the Hokie history books.
For the first time ever, Virginia Tech leaders, celebrity alumni, a sports icon, and a dancing HokieBird appeared virtually across computer and mobile screens everywhere to confer degrees and salute the Class of 2020. Virginia Tech’s recent commencement ceremony was held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the start of the 6:30 p.m. event, Virginia Tech President Tim Sands addressed the graduates as he stood behind a podium in Lane Stadium, where spring commencement typically is held.
“You’ve already overcome one global challenge, and you haven’t even moved your tassels yet,” he said. “Now, you are ready to go out and confront the emerging challenges of a rapidly changing world – and the world needs you.”
More than 4,200 viewers watched the ceremony in real time online, which was available on YouTube and streamed on the Virginia Tech website. Families, friends, and Hokie alumni from near and far congratulated graduates with video messages that played online before the ceremony began.
The Class of 2020 celebrated from wherever they were — many at their homes with family, hosting watch parties and commencement ceremonies. They participated virtually by posting to social media using the #HokieGrad tag or leaving comments on the commencement website.
Approximately 5,602 Hokies graduated with bachelor’s degrees and 62 earned associates degrees. Also, 1,247 graduate students were recognized, including those in the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine and the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine in Roanoke.
The HokieBird danced and applauded as Sands conferred each degree level.
Additionally, each college’s website posted a separate video message from its dean, along with a recorded reading of graduates’ names. Photos and posts of graduates, with many standing in their caps and gowns, flowed online when their names appeared as part of their college or department ceremony.
One of the biggest surprises of the evening was a video message from Hoda Kotb, a Virginia Tech alumna and co-host and co-anchor of “TODAY,” an NBC News morning show. From her dressing room, she held up her Virginia Tech hat and chanted the university’s old spirit cheer,
“Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, Hy! Tech, Tech, VPI.”
“You guys, I know this is a bummer,” Kotb said. “It’s a total bummer that you don’t get to walk across the stage, and my heart is breaking for you.”
But she encouraged Hokies to be strong and resilient during this time.
“We are back-straight kinds of people. We don’t curl up in the fetal position,” she said. “We stand up tall and that’s what we’re doing today. You learned things that nobody else has had to learn before you, no other graduating class. Take it forward into your life.”
Bud Foster, legendary defensive coordinator for the Hokies, also spoke and used an analogy of the eight stitches on a football to inspire graduates. The stitches not only hold the ball together, he said. The quarterback places his fingers on the stitches in order to throw the ball in a certain direction.
“Take your degree from Virginia Tech and let it give you direction as you reach for your goals,” Foster said. “You finally get to place your hands on the stitches.”
Then he threw the football toward the camera.
Foster encouraged graduates to return to Lane Stadium on Sept. 26, the day that the university plans to celebrate the Class of 2020. There will be a congratulatory tailgate and an opportunity for graduates to run through the football team tunnel.
Also during the virtual ceremony, Michael Quillen ’70, ’71 received the Virginia Tech William H. Ruffner Medal for 2020, the university’s highest honor. Quillen, who founded Alpha Natural Resources, a Fortune 500 company, told graduates that he could relate to their disappointments this year. The year he graduated from Virginia Tech, classes were disrupted because of the Vietnam War.
“You have missed some significant events, but as you will learn over the next 50 years, the last four plus years have given you memories you will cherish forever,” Quillen said.
Other special guests included Camille Schrier, a Hokie alumna who was crowned MIss America last year. She applauded the graduates for showcasing the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), in full force during the pandemic.
“The world needs Hokies now more than ever,” Schrier said.
Nikki Giovanni — poet, University Distinguished Professor, and namesake of the Class of 2020 ring, an honorary role given by students in the class — concluded the ceremony with a special poem dedicated to the graduates.
“I join the pride we take in the Hokie family,” Giovanni said. “The Class of Twenty Twenty has been gracious and brave.”
— Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone