At home, online and with humour, U of T’s Class of 2020 celebrate a virtual convocation

With social media, Zoom calls and signs planted on front lawns and draped from apartment balconies, there was no shortage of well-wishing for the University of Toronto’s class of 2020 – the first in the university’s 193 years to celebrate convocation remotely.

Some crafty graduates set the stage for their at-home convocation with cardboard props and makeshift gowns. Others left a running commentary of congratulatory messages on a chat window that accompanied the virtual event.

And some families and friends, like those of Twitter user and U of T graduate @JonaeDeF, created brand new traditions by letting loose when their loved one’s name flashed across the screen – a departure from the usual, in-person instruction to hold applause until all graduates have been called upon.

Speaking to graduating students tuning into the video ceremony on screens all over the globe, U of T President Meric Gertler commented on the uniqueness of the occasion and welcomed them to the “extraordinary family of University of Toronto alumni,” numbering over 600,000 and spanning 190 countries.

“U of T alumni serve in leadership roles in every corner of the globe and every walk of life,” he said. “They are prime ministers, justices, scholars, authors, community and business leaders, and professionals of every description.

“Their endeavours have shaped the world we live in and the way we understand that world.”

Wearing his formal, blue-and-white regalia, President Gertler presented the class of more than 15,000 graduating students to Chancellor Rose Patten, who conferred the degrees in absentia. The virtual ceremony, necessary because of public health rules preventing large gatherings during the pandemic, has so far received 31,000 views on Facebook and more than 58,000 views on YouTube.

Once it’s safe to do so, academic divisions will host their own in-person celebrations for the Class of 2020. But for now, the festivities were mostly confined to graduates’ homes and, of course, the internet, where people in all spheres of life posted congratulatory remarks – including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

After addressing U of T’s graduates in medicine, he retweeted class valedictorian Chika Oriuwa, adding: “Your voice, your talents, and your passion are needed now more than ever. Enjoy this moment.”

Students found many creative ways to mark one of life’s important milestones.

Wearing a navy U of T hoodie, Emilie Dudman – who graduates with a master’s degree in social work, posed for a photo behind a lawn sign decorated with multi-coloured balloons. It read: “Honk for Emilie” and “U of T graduate 2020.”

Dudman wrote on Instagram, “Grad is already off to an amazing start.”


A post shared by Emilie (@emiliedudman) on

Haim Abraham and his partner Eden Sarid, both receiving their PhDs from the Faculty of Law, dressed up for the occasion, substituting blue and teal bath robes for graduation gowns and wearing aluminum foil mortarboards – with a USB stick dangling from a cord and a charging cable acting as the tassels. They posed in front of a garden shed, decorated with a sign saying “Convocovid Hall,” and a cardboard CN Tower.

The day carried extra significance for the couple: Abraham received his U of T acceptance the same day he and Sarid were married. “Today, it’s like things are coming full circle,” he said.

Another graduate, who goes by @Martha3981 on Twitter, remarked about another coincidence: graduating from U of T Mississauga on the same day she was accepted to a master’s program at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

Convocation speaker, Nobel laureate and University Professor John Polanyi addressed the class of 2020 in the video, saluting their achievements while also speaking about their responsibilities toward the planet.

Polanyi – a passionate champion of nuclear disarmament – underscored the importance of learning from the global pandemic to avoid other “looming threats,” including climate change and nuclear war. 

“Education demands that you commit yourselves to the cause of reason, speaking out on its behalf,” he said. “Yesterday you were students; today you are also teachers.”

Striking a hopeful tone, he added that “science is in the ascendant” and that U of T graduates will play a part in securing the future.

“Though our meeting today is only virtual, your voices will be heard in coming years and will be vital as we negotiate the shoals that lie ahead,” he said. “We look forward to hearing from you.”

The ceremony concluded with a scroll of the names and degrees of the Class of 2020. The list reflected graduates who were eligible as of May 25. A final version of the scrolling list can be seen here. 

The virtual ceremony will be archived at U of T’s Convocation Hub  for several weeks.