Sep 18, 2021
University Event, UVA Arts

UVA Today • by Caroline Newman • June 29, 2021

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the University of Virginia to send students home and later to cancel in-person Final Exercises last year, staff across the University began searching for new ways to safely celebrate the Class of 2020 and honor its accomplishments.

One of the results, a virtual commencement video, was nominated for an Emmy Award in the National Capital Chesapeake Bay Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences. UVA was nominated in the “Education/Schools – Long-Form Content” category, ultimately won by television station WTKR for its piece, “The New Canaan Experiment: Teaching Tolerance.” The Emmy Award ceremony was held virtually Saturday night.

“I offer my heartiest congratulations to the talented team behind 2020’s virtual Final Exercises,” UVA President Jim Ryan said. “The Emmy nomination was well-deserved, and I deeply appreciate the hard work and creativity that was reflected in the final production. I know it meant a great deal to our graduating class and to our entire community.”

The virtual commencement, which was about 40 minutes long, included surprise appearances by Dave Matthews, who played a new song, “Singing From the Windows,” that hit home during the COVID-19 quarantine; and from cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who played “Appalachia Waltz” from his home as photos of the graduates rolled by on the screen.

‘Singing From the Windows’ – Dave Matthews

Ryan gave remarks and virtually conferred degrees for the more than 7,000 graduates, and a year-in-review video looked back on the 2019-20 year, from the normalcy of the fall to the strangeness of the spring.

Yo-Yo Ma Plays for the UVA Class of 2020

The video commencement – produced by Matt Weber, Erik Duda, and Vinny Varsalona at UVA – was viewed by thousands of students and their families all around the world.

It closed with a virtual rendition of “The Good Old Song,” normally sung by thousands of new graduates arm-in-arm on the Lawn. The 2020 version, played first by Ma and then sung by more than 90 members of the University Singers, each performing from home, was a reminder of all that was different, and all that still endured.

The video itself will always be a reminder of what the University community went through in 2020, from abruptly needing to send students home in March to cautiously welcoming them back in August with COVID-19 tests, masks, and social distancing.

2021 brought some redemption, as COVID-19 vaccines arrived, making it possible for some members of the Class of 2020 to travel back to Charlottesville for a delayed in-person Final Exercises in May. Their long-anticipated walk down the Lawn and to Scott Stadium was one of the most poignant and joyful celebrations in University history.