Fenway Park played host Saturday to Northeastern University’s first in-person commencement since 2019, as students reflected on a difficult year that involved an upheaval of college life and relentless COVID-19 swabs.
“Your class has to be the most tested in history,” joked Northeastern president Joseph E. Aoun.
Bentley University was the first to hold a college commencement at Fenway last Saturday, according to the university, followed by Emerson College the day after. Suffolk University and at least 16 high schools also plan to host graduation ceremonies at the historic ballpark.
It was perhaps a sign of the times that the Northeastern student speaker began his speech with the question, “When do we get back to normal?”
Nathan Louis Hostert, a political science major from Kansas, told the crowd that the pandemic took a toll on his class.
“I think it is important to acknowledge what we went through,” he said. “This past year sucked.”
Yet Hostert also emphasized silver linings and concluded by urging the class to “make a new normal that we can all be proud of.”
Northeastern graduates were scattered on folding chairs set up in the outfield and in the stadium’s field-level seats during the first of the university’s three ceremonies Saturday, divided up to meet social distancing requirements.
The university’s pep band and small brass and woodwind ensembles played live from the bleachers and guests of the students were dispersed across the park’s other levels.
In many ways the ceremony was a traditional one, with speakers urging graduates to celebrate their accomplishments and do good in the world.
Still, there was no ignoring the ongoing pandemic, and one of the featured speakers was Rochelle Walensky, a leader in the Biden administration’s COVID-19 response. Like all the guest speakers outside the university, including Impossible Foods founder Patrick Brown and Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey, she spoke via prerecorded video.
“Pause, look around at this stadium, and celebrate this moment,” said Walensky, who was chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital before being selected as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “While magnificent, I am certain it is not what you envisioned when you started on this experience.”
Walensky briefly spoke of her journey to the prominent national post she now holds, beginning from her work with AIDS patients. “When I was in your shoes, I can promise I would have never expected to be here. But you become who you are because of pivotal moments in your education and your training,” she said.
Before the ceremony, Edberg Andre, 30, who grew up in Dorchester and is graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering said “I’m glad Northeastern could pull this off.”
He carried a replica World Wrestling Entertainment heavyweight championship belt over one shoulder and said: “I’m a champion today.”
Some of last year’s graduates are still upset that they did not have an in-person ceremony, according to Bethlehem Ashagire, 22.
“They were pretty sad,” she said.
As for Ashagire, her feelings about graduation were far simpler as she walked into the ballpark: “I’m excited.”
Christopher Magana, 21, acknowledged that the “limited number of guests takes a way from it a little.”
Still, “It’s definitely better to walk than not,” he said, with his mother at his side.
Although students were allowed only a single guest inside the park, one extended family waited outside with face cutouts and matching hats. Nine family members had flown in from all parts of the country, including the West Coast, to be there.
“It’s amazing,” said Eloise Coly, 21, who also attended a virtual graduation in January, which she described as underwhelming. “I almost cried a few times.”
“It’s bittersweet,” added her mother Shirley Coly, 55, of Washington state, explaining that her husband — the graduate’s father — died in March. “My family rallied because we knew it would be kind of hard.”
Unlike most commencements, the event acknowledged the loss and hardship many endured over the past year.
“Virtually everything about what you expected your college experience to be was turned upside down in March of 2020 and it’s pretty much stayed that way ever since,” Governor Charles D. Baker said in prerecorded remarks played during the event.
“I do think the fact that you get to have the ceremony at Fenway Park is actually kind of a cool thing, but I’m sure if you had to trade that for everything else that happened over the course of last year, you’d probably be perfectly happy to do it back at your dorm.”
Lucas Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.