An opening slideshow to reminisce about times spent together. A chat window filled with congratulatory messages. And a surprise from film and media professors.
Hunter’s film and media department hosted its first-ever virtual commencement ceremony in recognition of its graduating students.
On Wednesday, many graduates who studied film, journalism, emerging media, documentary and television production as well as other disciplines within media studies convened with professors, staff, friends and family via Zoom from 1 to 3 p.m. to celebrate their achievement.
“I have the distinct pleasure of celebrating the truly amazing, unique, unstoppable Hunter film and media class of 2020,” said Jennifer Raab, president of Hunter College. “You did it.”
The celebration came as students deal with the effects of a viral pandemic. Since March 19, CUNY students have been engaged in distance learning as part of the effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Several speakers acknowledged the resilience of students during this unprecedented time.
“Each of you has the courage, perseverance, and conviction to overcome every obstacle in your way,” said Hunter alum and Executive Director of New York Women in Film and Television Cynthia Lopez in her keynote address to the graduates. “Look what you’ve done, look what you’ve accomplished. You will always rise above.”
One of Hunter’s nine valedictorians, Melissa Lent, echoed that sentiment. The media studies and creative writing graduate said that her experience over the last few years, including this semester made her realize that she is “ready to take on life.”
Lent, along with film graduate Tanisha Williams, won the NYWIFT Scholarship Fund Award for $1,000 and a one-year membership with New York Women in Film and Television organization.
There were other award winners at the ceremony as well. Graduate student Tareo Bouraque, a journalist from Morocco who is now also a filmmaker, won the department’s award for Outstanding Achievement in Integrated Media Arts. Since the original ceremony for the award was canceled because of COVID-19, film graduate Douglas Guida was recognized at this ceremony for winning the Lumiere Award for Outstanding Work in Film Studies.
Six students in the IMA program were also each given a $1,000 award for “completing work that was nothing short of extraordinary” during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Andrew Lund, the IMA program director.
Along with striving to produce ideal work, the virus has also left some graduating students wondering about their future career plans in a time of economic downturn. Despite 2.5 million jobs being added in May, millions of people could remain unemployed and the economy is not back to normal, according to The New York Times. The COVID-19 crisis could also cancel almost one million summer internships, according to a Pay Our Interns estimate.
Media studies graduate, Jose Suarez, would normally just search for jobs and internships related to video editing, transcribing, and other opportunities aligning with his career interests. However, the 21-year-old says that COVID-19 has shifted his priorities.
“Now it’s like, just trying to find any means of income. We’re just trying to make ends meet,” said Suarez, who is the first in his family to attend college.
Suarez also said that while he was thankful for the virtual ceremony, it was not ideal. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he expected a grand celebration at Madison Square Garden, where Hunter hosted its graduation last year. So, he was disappointed that the ceremony was not as he envisioned it.
“To go from that to my living room with my laptop in front of me, stacked on top of shoe boxes to get to my height— it’s kind of underwhelming,” he said.
Suarez’s parents were also not thrilled about the situation. His father said that they “could not fully celebrate that special day as parents” because it was virtual. Suarez’s mother, Olga Gomez, remained somewhat positive.
“It felt a bit sad but I’m proud that my son finished college,” the 45-year-old said. “Hopefully, in the future we can enjoy the moment with family and friends together in a grand celebration.”
Nevertheless, there was some merit to the situation, as this year’s event was also the first time the department conducted a graduation that was separate from Hunter’s usual commencement, according to Kelly Anderson, chair of the Film and Media Studies department.
“I’m grateful for the virtual graduation because we were able to get the whole media community together. We also had a lot more time to hear from our own students and faculty,” said Janet Hernandez, a journalism major who was chosen to give a speech. “I mean we don’t really get opportunities to be in a space like that.”
Hernandez was initially not adamant about having a graduation ceremony. However, she is also grateful for the virtual graduation because she is proud of the hard work she has done.
“A few weeks into the semester, I thought, ‘You know what? I do deserve a graduation because I am putting in the work and I have been putting in this work for so long,’” Hernandez said.
Other departments have already conducted virtual graduations including the music, dance and political science departments. Even though this spring’s graduation could not happen in person, Raab has announced that all of the nearly 4,000 Hunter students who graduated this semester are invited to attend the January 2021 Commencement ceremony.
To close out the celebration, film and media professors created a video in which they expressed their wishes for the class of 2020.
In the time of a global pandemic and a renewed fight for social justice, they wished the graduates happiness, continued success and a commitment to making the world a better place, something that Lopez said they have the ability to do.
“You have the power, principles, and perseverance to create, inspire, and instigate for a better world,” Lopez said. “Congratulations class of 2020. I’m excited to see the world that you will create.”