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Summer 2022 Commencement Invites Graduates to Reflect on Pandemic Perseverance

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DU Summer Commencement ceremony 

The University of Denver’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has been recognized as one of the best in the country. Despite this, maintaining educational momentum during a time of international strife and uncertainty has presented its fair share of challenges.

No one knows this better than the Class of 2022. At DU’s summer Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner acknowledged these difficulties, telling the 700 graduate and 137 undergraduate students that their experience was a source of pride for the institution and their families.

“Your college experience was interrupted and, in some ways shaped by ‘that which shall not be named,’” he said. “But you persevered. We are incredibly proud of you.”

Haefner thanked students and their loved ones as well as DU’s faculty and staff, whom he called “the backbone of the University,” for their hard work in supporting each other and DU.

Haefner then introduced the ceremony’s two Commencement speakers, DU’s own Sarah Watamura and Corinne Lengsfeld.

Professor Watamura is chair of the Department of Psychology, as well as director of the Child Health & Development Laboratory and co-director of the Stress, Early Experience and Development Research Center. She also has served as the University’s COVID-19 response coordinator for the past two and a half years.

In her address, Watamura asked students to think not just about the losses that came with the pandemic, but also about what they had learned as a result.

“I invite you to reflect on what COVID has taught you—about what you value, what you really need, what you are capable of,” she said.

Watamura noted how the school’s response to the pandemic solidified her belief in DU’s commitment to the public good. “COVID taught me that here at DU, a medium-sized school in the mountain West, we can bring unparalleled scientific speed and ingenuity to bear—from the day in June 2020 when I read a stack of articles and thought, ‘There is really no reason we can’t test saliva for COVID. And there’s really no reason we can’t do it here,’ to the day Dr. [Phillip] Danielson opened our incredibly efficient and effective Spit lab in January 2021, to this day with nearly 500,000 accurate and eight-hour average return time tests behind us. Never doubt your ability to bring ingenuity to a solution—never think you can’t build something incredible no matter where or who you are.

“COVID taught me that here at DU, we can deeply live our commitment to being a great private university dedicated to the public good. With no medical or public health school, we supported the delivery of over 35,000 vaccines in close partnership with National Jewish Health and with volunteer faculty, staff, students and families on phone lines, prepping materials, pushing wheelchairs, checking forms, directing traffic and calming nerves.

“We supported vaccination in rain and snow and heat—in multiple languages, to folks without computers or internet, to children as young as 5 and even a few centenarians. Whether or not you came to DU knowing about our commitment to the public good, I hope you take that vision forward—choosing the public good when you could take a narrower perspective. There’s never a situation where there’s too few resources or too little time to make that decision.”

Watamura closed her remarks by asking students to remember the importance of strong relationships in the face of adversity.

“Look around you—at your loved ones from home and at the people you’ve just spent these challenging life-changing years with. These relationships build the fabric of your future. They set you up for success and can lead to new connections as you leverage these networks.”

Lengsfeld, DU’s senior vice provost for research and graduate education, partnered with Watamura to help lead DU’s COVID-19 response initiative.

“It is incredible to consider that a micron-size virus/organism could so dramatically and rapidly disrupt the world, the economy, our lives; shift our thinking; and [teach] us lessons so rich and complex,” she said.

“All of the graduates today have so much to be proud of. Earlier this year, National Public Radio reported that over 1 million students in the U.S. chose not to start or dropped out of their college education during the pandemic. I suspect you deployed a myriad of resilience techniques. For example, like Pavlov’s dog, we learned to spit on demand, taking half a million spit tests or approximately 1000 tests per day, every day, for 18 months. Together we turned a mandatory requirement into a social cocktail hour on the grass in front of the Care Pod—showing how reframing and community can help us endure and overcome, a lesson I hope you take forward.

“Ninety-seven-plus percent of our DU community were early adopters—getting vaccinated in large public events like those you read about in history books. Unexpectedly we felt the emotion, maybe shed a few tears, or embraced each other out of pure joy [about] that first shot, which provided us freedom, liberating us from the control of a micron-size virus. With no examples of what in-person classes or hybrid learning would look like, we boldly masked, socially distanced, quarantined, and joined our peers and faculty in classes, innovating each day with new pedagogical adaptations and a continuous commitment to improvement. We showed up and chose to lead each and every day.

“Along the way, we collectively experienced the full spectrum of mental health issues and scenarios in our families, our friends and in ourselves. But you earned this chair by not wallowing. Instead, we stood up and fought back. As a result, each of us helped in this war against a micron-sized virus, [and] thus, own a piece of human history. We may not be the greatest generation—but not far from that.”

Lengsfeld ended her remarks by congratulating graduates on their adaptability and perseverance.

“I believe in this generation of graduates like I have never believed in graduates in the last 24 years,” she said. “We need you in public office, in our labs advancing science, in our schools preparing those that follow, in our community holding, helping, caring. Go live a life of purpose. Serve the public good. Make the last two and a half years count.”