Getting their due: JSU Class of 2020 goes from virtual last year to in-person commencement this year

(JACKSON, Miss.) — People are calling it the commencement that was “delayed but not denied.” On Saturday, May 8, at 6 p.m. Jackson State University’s class of 2020 filed into Veterans Memorial Stadium to participate in a long-overdue commencement exercise.

Last spring, the class of 2020 had a virtual ceremony due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, university administrators pledged to bring students back the following year for an in-person experience.

“This day has been a long time in the making,” said Thomas K. Hudson, president of JSU, as he addressed the group of about 600 undergraduates and graduates.

Hudson shared that the day was significant for him because the class of 2020 was not only his first class as university president, but they were the class that stood tall during a worldwide pandemic.

“Despite all obstacles, it was this class that decided to come back and celebrate your 2020 commencement,” said Hudson, before the graduates erupted with applause and cheers. “This is a major milestone, and you deserve every part of this moment.”

He then asked the class to stand for recognition.

Jordan Jefferson, SGA president of the class of 2020, implored graduates to find their purpose. Later, Jefferson, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., stepped across the stage to accept his diploma. (Photos by William Kelly/JSU)

Jordan Jefferson, SGA president of the class of 2020, served as keynote speaker.

During his time at JSU, the gregarious Jefferson became a Rhodes Scholar finalist. He was also a student-athlete who played wide receiver for the JSU football squad while maintaining a 3.9 GPA.

“Hey, we did it, y’all,” said Jefferson taking the podium. “We waited 371 days. I counted.”

Despite commencement not happening the way they had wanted it to, Jefferson said it happened the way it was supposed to happen.

“I want everyone to grasp this moment because it is bigger than today. We didn’t let a national pandemic stop us,” he pronounced.

A graduate shouts with joy as she crosses the stage at the class of 2020 commencement ceremony that took place on May 8. (Photo by William Kelly/JSU)

Hudson, JSU administrators and the university’s commencement committee were determined to bring the group back for an official ceremony.

“Graduation is a significant part of one’s academic journey. Obviously, the pandemic derailed our students’ final months of school. Therefore, it was only right for us to find a way to make this event possible,” Hudson said later.

To pull off the ceremony, the university followed COVID-19 guidelines and implemented safeguards such as limited guest tickets and staggered entrances for graduates.

Starting off his address with a sprinkle of humor, Jefferson quoted Dr. Seuss, author of the popular children’s book series.

“Dr. Seuss said, ‘Today you are you. That is truer than true. There is no one alive who is you-er than you,'” he said.

Jefferson informed the graduates that they were not the same “you” that walked onto the campus several years ago.

Despite not knowing what their four years would be like, Jefferson said they had chosen the greatest institution ever to challenge minds and change lives.

But it was purpose that lay at the crux of his address.

“My message to you, my fellow class of 2020 graduates, simply put, is purpose. When you leave here today and head into life, I want you to leave with a clear purpose in mind. Having a purpose is so important,” he implored.

Jefferson urged his classmates to find their purpose and let their passion be the determiner.  If they had not figured out their passion yet, they were already behind in the game.

“If you don’t spend some quality time building your dream, I can guarantee someone will hire you to help build theirs,” Jefferson stressed.

He then reminded his peers that while graduation is a goal, it should not be their purpose.

“Graduation day is a great day of celebration. It is an important day to recognize your hard work. But the two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you discover why,” he said.

Jefferson advised the audience that they would never be fulfilled until they are fulfilled with purpose. Using an analogy, he told them to think of themselves as a balloon.

“Once a balloon is made, the balloon is complete, but the balloon never reaches its purpose until it is filled with something and that something is air,” he explained.

He then pressed graduates to fill themselves with something, and that something is purpose.

Jefferson named several steps to finding purpose. They include staying optimistic and executing a plan, he said before giving illustrations for emphasis.

Lastly, the key to finding purpose is understanding “we have two lives, and the second life starts the day you realize you only have one life to live,” said Jefferson.

He warned his classmates that they do not get a practice run.

“Once you start running this race of life, you have to run it with the vision of an eagle, with the strength of a lion, but most importantly, with the tenacity of a tiger,” he encouraged.

Decorative graduation caps were on full display with messages of inspiration. (Photos by Aron Smith and William Kelly/JSU)

Jefferson called the class of 2020 the next generation of change agents. He expressed his pride in being a member of a class that would not allow a national pandemic to take away a moment they had worked so hard to enjoy.

“It is my hope that each of us will be worthy of everything that this great institution has instilled in us,” he concluded.

Frederick Haywood traveled from Seattle, Washington, to attend the deferred ceremony. After finishing school last spring, Haywood took a job with Amazon as a marketing specialist.

The Mound Bayou native said he needed the ceremony more than he thought but expressly for his mental health. “I loved every minute of it,” he said. “It was a reunion for my friends and I.”

Haywood said he fully expected a condensed celebration and praised the university for providing a traditional ceremony.

“It was definitely worth the wait,” he affirmed.

Former Miss JSU Naysa Lynch was also on hand.

“Good things come to those who wait,” she said enthusiastically.

A native of the Virgin Islands, Lynch landed a management job with Enterprise Rent-a-Car in Jackson after receiving her business marketing degree from JSU last year.

She described the commencement as special in many ways. She, too, noted the event as a much-needed lift to her mental health.

Lynch recalled being in the middle of spring break when she learned the pandemic would abruptly shift the remainder of her senior year.

“Receiving this information felt as though I had to unwillingly and indefinitely separate from my best friend,” she said.

Though Lynch has already started her next chapter, she said participating in the commencement ceremony gave her the chance to finish the last sentence of her life’s previous chapter.

“It also gave me the necessary boost of energy to continue writing my current one,” she said, before adding:

“‘Thee I love, my dear ole college home'”