University News

Worth the Wait: University Celebrates Class of 2020 During Special Centennial Commencement

As part of Homecoming Weekend, the University of New Haven hosted an in-person Commencement ceremony for its Centennial Class. Graduates officially completed their degrees in 2020, the University's Centennial year, but were unable to have an in-person ceremony until now due to the impact of COVID-19.

October 21, 2021

By Dave Cranshaw, Office of Marketing & Communications

Students from the Class of 2020 celebrating graduation.
Members of the Class of 2020 celebrate at Centennial Commencement.

In speaking to the University of New Haven’s Centennial Class during an in-person Commencement ceremony delayed nearly 18 months by the impact of COVID-19, English professor Randall Horton, Ph.D., told the graduates, “There is no wall that you cannot break down.”

He knows from experience. More than 20 years ago, he found himself incarcerated at Roxbury Correctional in Maryland, convicted of smuggling cocaine.

“My life had run smack into a stone brick wall inside of cell 23,” he said. “The only way to get to the other side of that physical and metaphorical wall was to deal with the situation before me. I needed to run toward the problem. There was no other way living inside a box.”

He became a voracious reader and took a community college course for credit. At the end of that class, he was asked by the professor to be the main speaker at the awards ceremony they conduct each year.

“And today, I get the honor and privilege to stand before you today, to witness, to testify as a living example that there is no wall that you cannot break down,” said Horton, a recipient of a 2021 American Book Award. “The Class of 2020 will definitively be that point of reference when we ask ourselves: Which class has shown the most resiliency in the face of the unimaginable here at the University of New Haven? You are that class.”

Randall Horton, Ph.D. speaking at gradaution.
English professor Randall Horton, Ph.D., speaks to graduates.
‘You are indeed special’

As part of the in-person ceremony held during Homecoming weekend, Horton shared a special poem he wrote for the nearly 350 graduates, many of whom returned to campus for the first time since the onset of the pandemic, and who completed their degrees in 2020, the University’s Centennial year.

“Literally in midsentence, before the final paper could be completed, before the last paragraph of your life’s narrative up until that point could be written – the world you thought you knew – turned upside down, became topsy-turvy, a balancing act you had to negotiate,” said Horton. “I heard your personal stories of hardship, but I also I felt the determination, the unwillingness to acknowledge defeat and not give up something so close, yet so far away, at the time.

Anna Downs ’20.
Anna Downs ’20.

“You will always be able to juxtapose what you went through to obtain this great achievement to any roadblock that might present itself on the path you travel on your journey through this life,” he continued. “Congratulations to the Class of 2020, you are indeed special.”

‘I am extremely thankful’

Among the graduates was Anna Downs ’20 who has since returned to the University to serve as assistant director of admissions and enrollment communications. “I am extremely thankful I made the decision to attend the University of New Haven, which cares about its students,” she said.

In beginning his remarks, President Steven H. Kaplan looked across Zolad Stadium, saying, “This is cool,” commending the class leaders for their commitment to holding the in-person ceremony they richly deserved.

“The pandemic has impacted all of us in far-reaching ways,” he said. “Perhaps, though, there was no one impacted more, as a group, than the members of our Centennial Class who were working to complete your degrees during this unprecedented time. You and your classmates and fellow students across the country and around the world were nearing the end of your studies and looking forward to all of the traditions associated with this important milestone in your lives.”

Image of some of the gradautes at the Centennial Ceremony.
Nearly 350 graduates attended the Centennial Commencement ceremony at the University.
‘You are uniquely prepared’

President Kaplan said that what stood out to him was the graduates’ response to the challenges they confronted – and triumphantly overcome.

“I am most grateful we have the opportunity to gather safely today to acknowledge your resolve and all you have already accomplished since you joined the ranks of our alumni, as well as to celebrate your limitless potential to continue to make a difference in this world.”

In concluding his remarks, President Kaplan quoted Maya Angelou who once said, “I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it.”

“Each of you exemplify and embody this sentiment,” he said. “Thanks to your resilience and resolve, you are uniquely prepared, perhaps more than any group of graduates that came before you, to respond to adversity.”