Bringing Tradition Back at Drexel’s 2021 Commencement

Student cheers and raises arm at ballpark.

Drexel University’s 2021 University-wide Commencement returned back to the ballpark and back to some of its pre-COVID-19 traditions and customs to celebrate graduates of the Class of 2021 as well as the Class of 2020, whose own commencement last year was made virtual due to the pandemic.

The 133rd Commencement of Drexel University, held June 11 at Citizens Bank Park, recognized the achievements of both classes and celebrated the momentous occasion with an in-person ceremony at the ballpark that was also livestreamed. For those Forever Dragons — graduates from distinct backgrounds coming together from over 40 countries and graduating from 180 Drexel degree programs — the hybrid model was a familiar format. But on this occasion, it also signaled that the return to some aspects of pre-COVID life, like large in-person gatherings, meant they were starting their post-graduation life in a different world than the one in which they had entered Drexel, or even when they entered their final year at the University. 

“None of us can predict the future,” Drexel University President John Fry noted in his speech (which was also published online), “but one thing I’m sure of is that you’ll always look back at this tumultuous moment in history that you lived through — and you’ll have every reason to remember the incredible pride we all feel today at the perseverance, creativity and sheer determination that will forever define the great Drexel classes of ’20 and ’21.”

New Forever Dragons attending the in-person ceremony adhered to city and state health and safety guidelines; as per Phillies’ health and safety guidelines, face coverings were required indoors, and Drexel strongly encouraged face coverings outdoors as well. Each graduate attending in person could bring a maximum of eight guests, and Dragons could sit with their classmates or guests in the stands. Dragons celebrating with family members and friends at home could watch a livestream of the event online.

Drexel Commencement 2021 Campus Wide Ceremony

The graduates, and their friends and families, Fry acknowledged during the ceremony, had likely been through high highs and low lows during the events of the last year. In his speech, he spoke about the tumultuous circumstances in the country at the time when, 85 years ago, U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt accepted the 1936 Democratic presidential nomination (closer to Drexel, at the University of Pennsylvania and its Franklin Field) and remarked in his speech, “There is a mysterious cycle in human events to some generations much is given. Of other generations much is expected. This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny.”

“During our own year of loss and hardship, we know just how much has been expected of you, in this generation of Drexel students,” Fry said, later adding, “You’ve lived through a time of crises: Not just a global pandemic, but an economic crash, a long-overdue national reckoning with systemic racism, the rise of ethnic and religious intolerance, an election that fulfilled — and an aftermath that challenged — our most basic democratic values. And now, you too have your own rendezvous with destiny, because of what you’ve achieved through it all — with a relentless spirit of innovation and practical problem-solving that’s always been at the core of a Drexel education.”

The stage for Drexel's commencement ceremony at Citizens Bank Park.

Executive Vice President, Nina Henderson Provost and University Professor of Drexel University Paul E. Jensen, PhD, also addressed both classes, congratulating them for completing their journey at Drexel during such complicated times and urging them to look forward to the next chapter of their life.

“As you reflect upon it, some may see the pandemic as a year lost — focusing only on what they didn’t do, or didn’t experience. And for sure, it was a difficult year,” said Jensen. “But others will choose to focus on the incredible challenge through which they persevered. They will see it as an example of what they are capable of doing. Remember, the choice is up to you as to how you frame these experiences. My hope is that you will take stock of what you have accomplished, recall it with pride and move on knowing you can tackle any challenges that lie ahead.”

Fry and Jensen were part of a cohort of speakers addressing both the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 during the ceremony, and they were seated on the stage at the ballpark along with a cohort of University leaders including the deans of Drexel colleges and schools, honorary degree recipients, trustees and other speakers. Those additional speakers included:

  • Rabbi Isabel de Koninck, executive director and campus rabbi for Hillel at Drexel University, who offered the invocation.
  • Chairman of Drexel’s Board of Trustees Richard Greenawalt ’66, who congratulated the Forever Dragons on behalf of the Board of Trustees.
  • Former President of the Undergraduate Student Government Association Apoorva Selvaraj, who graduated from the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science, and Health Systems last year, addressed the crowd on behalf of Drexel’s Undergraduate Class of 2020.
  • Rasheda Likely, PhD, who graduated with a PhD from the School of Education last year, shared remarks on behalf of Drexel’s Graduate Class of 2020.
  • President of the Undergraduate Student Government Association Timothy Hanlon, who graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences this year, spoke to the graduates as a representative of Drexel’s Undergraduate Class of 2021.
  • Graduate Student Association Vice President of Student Life Saurajyoti Kar, PhD, who graduated with a PhD from the College of Engineering this year, could not be at the in-person ceremony but recorded his speech made in the name of Drexel’s Graduate Class of 2021.
  • College of Arts and Sciences Associate Professor of Chemistry Kevin Owens, PhD, who shared greetings from the Drexel faculty as chair of the Faculty Senate.
  • Chair-Elect of the Drexel Alumni Board of Governors and incoming member of the Drexel University Board of Trustees Corina Lam ‘10, who spoke to the Forever Dragons on behalf of the Drexel Alumni Board of Governors and more than 170,000 Drexel alumni worldwide.

The official Commencement speaker at the ceremony, who was also an honorary degree recipient this year, was someone Fry had met when both were at the University of Pennsylvania two decades ago. Urban ethnographer and Sterling Professor of Sociology and of African American Studies at Yale University Elijah Anderson, PhD, had “gracefully agreed to share his uniquely expert insights with me and shape my understanding of how an urban university can truly serve its community,” Fry said.

Drexel President John Fry, left, with Commencement speaker and honorary degree recipient Elijah Anderson, PhD.

In his address, Anderson spoke about the importance of learning truths and speaking those truths to power, particularly, as he described, when it comes to the historical and very current problem of racial inequality and systemic racism in this country and challenges to democracy in today’s America.

“My grandmother used to say, ‘tell the truth and shame the devil.’ Truth is precious; it is to be honored,” he said.

Later, he added, “One of the greatest challenges of our national is systemic racism, and you, dear graduates, are in a position to fundamentally change this situation for the better. But you must start with the truth. Don’t hide from it and bury your heads in the sand.”

Fry also discussed the importance of truth in his speech as an essential component to the lives these Dragons will lead after leaving Drexel.

“So if there’s one thing I hope you take away from your time here — from your professors, from your work experiences, and from one another — it’s the capacity and dedication to ‘living in truth,’ as the late Czech playwright Vaclav Havel put it,” said Fry. “What we do with that truth, as a free society, is up to all of us.  And now, whatever path or profession you choose in the years to come, it’s up to you.” 

Student holds sign that says "She believed she could, so she did."

With graduation regularly standing in as large symbolic gesture of the graduates’ completion of their education and move to a new life, the fact that this year’s graduation was able to be held at all in-person was a large symbolic gesture in itself.

For some attendees and their loved ones, the reemergence of an in-person Commencement ceremony at Citizens Bank Park — the fifth time that Drexel Commencement was held there — marked the first and/or biggest large in-person gathering they attended in over a year. And for some of the University professional staff and administrators involved with the monumental behind-the-scenes operation putting on the University-wide ceremony and the individual college and school ceremonies, it was a return to planning large-scale events for the University community.

Earlier that week, from June 7–10, 12 Drexel colleges and schools had held their own virtual ceremonies to honor their graduates from the Class of 2021. Last month, the Drexel University College of Medicine celebrated the Class of 2021 with an in-person ceremony and hybrid commencement on May 18, and the Thomas R. Kline School of Law honored the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 with an in-person ceremony on May 19.

The University’s Commencement Cap Contest returned this year, with the top three winners showing off their creativity to decorate their caps with messages and scenes about hope, pride and the future.

The University-wide ceremony kicked off with an optional graduate procession into the ballpark. Dan Baker, the voice of baseball in Philly and a parent of a Drexel alumnus, who had also filmed a video welcoming Dragons to the ceremony, served as the Master of Ceremonies of the event — same as last year’s virtual ceremony, as well as past Drexel commencement ceremonies held in Citizens Bank Park.

Just like in past years at Citizens Bank Ballpark, a loud and bright fireworks ceremony lit up the ballpark for a colorful end to the big day. Across the city, Boathouse Row also lit up — in blue and gold — in recognition of the University’s Commencement.

Students show off a classmate's decorated cap with a ribbon.

And to finish the celebrations on a sweeter note: the celebration of Drexel graduates on campus — specifically, the two Saxbys located on campus — didn’t end on June 11. For the entire month of June, the cafés located at Drexel PISB and at 65 N 34th St. will be serving the Drexel Class of 2020 and 2021 Signature Drink. The limited-edition Chocolate Hazelnut Latte is made with chocolate, hazelnut, espresso and steamed whole milk, and features a Dragon soaring through the foam for an extra shot of school spirit. The Saxbys team created a custom drink directly for Drexel based off of student flavor submissions.

For all of those new 2021 Drexel graduates, and the members of the Class of 2020 who now had the opportunity to celebrate their achievements in person and with a ceremony at the ballpark, it was the end of their Drexel educational experiences and career, as well as the months and months of remote, virtual and, later, hybrid and in-person learning they completed during the pandemic. The world that they’re graduating into is unlike one that any other Drexel Dragon has entered, even the one from last year — but, after all, ambition can’t wait.

To relive the special moments from the University-wide Commencement, and all of the college and school ceremonies, check out the University’s commencement website. To see how Dragons celebrated graduation on social media, scroll through the #ForeverDragons hashtags on Twitter and Instagram and visit the individual University, college and school social media accounts. To read about college and school ceremonies as well as the University-wide Commencement ceremony, and a list of the 2021 degree recipients, download Drexel’s 2021 Commencement Program [PDF].

And to see how Forever Dragons celebrated at Citizens Bank Park this year — well, there’s a slideshow for that, too.