Celebrating the Class of Perfect Vision

Class of 2020 virtual celebration

Alumni representing a wide range of generations and disciplines are among the members of the RISD community to send heartfelt congratulations via video to the Class of 2020—the 457 undergraduate and 207 graduate students who completed their degrees this year while facing unprecedented challenges.

“You have had to... dig deep to understand what truly matters in your work and for your future,” President Rosanne Somerson noted during the tribute, which went live on RISD’s Commencement website at 9am on Saturday, May 30—when the traditional, in-person event would have begun. In light of academic and personal disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the president applauded this year’s graduates for the resilience and empathy they’ve demonstrated—“traits [that] are incredibly important in your journey toward personal empowerment as artists.”

A single flower hangs in the RISD Library to honor the Class of 2020—continuing a tradition that began at Commencement 2012. Intentionally unfinished, the sculpture represents both the interrupted semester and a blank slate inviting creativity.
“You have had to... dig deep to understand what truly matters in your work and for your future.”
RISD President Rosanne Somerson

Provost Kent Kleinman encouraged students to work continually toward creating a more just and sustainable world. “You are the agents of change,” he said, “and because of what you have experienced this semester, you know that you have the creativity, the resilience, the knowledge and the experience to make a difference.”

In the half-hour video, several members of the Class of 2020 speak candidly about the impact of their sudden departure from campus. “It’s been quite tough,” admits Hanisha Thirth Benna Bhaktula MDes 20. “We need to have people to cry together [and] laugh together—during the thesis especially.”

“[The Class of 2020] gives me a lot of hope... and makes me feel very proud.”
Keavy Handley-Byrne MFA 20 PH

But even at a distance, several students observe how tough times have brought graduates closer together. “It gives me a lot of hope,” remarked Keavy Handley-Byrne MFA 20 PH, “and makes me feel very proud.”

Before officially welcoming students into RISD’s global community of alumni, the president and provost also presented the Warren Family Social Engagement Award to Sophie Weston Chien BArch 20 and the Steven Mendelson Community Service Award to Alla Alsahli 20 AP, thanking both for their socially engaged work and leadership as students.

As the names of all graduating students appear in the video—which was made by alumni Jon Gourlay 15 FAV and Jo Sittenfeld MFA 08 PH with art direction from Huy Vu MFA 09 GD and cinematography by faculty member Thad Russell MFA 06 PH—a wide range of alumni offer graduates messages of warmth, solidarity and admiration.

Among them, Korakrit Arunanondchai 09 PR recalls how what he learned at RISD guided him through the global financial meltdown he dealt with right after graduation. “If you learn to be happy with yourself, know what your goals are and know who your friends are,” the artist said, “you can… keep going forever.”

“You and yours have chosen wisely and well at RISD. Now go forth and make things much better—really fast.”
Jenny Holzer MFA 77 PT

Some alumni invite new graduates to take a well-earned breath and find the silver lining in the current crisis—“to officially allow yourself to procrastinate [and] think about what it is you want to do,” as author/illustrator David Macaulay BArch 69 put it—while others encourage more immediate creative interventions.

“You and yours have chosen wisely and well at RISD,” artist Jenny Holzer MFA 77 PT assures graduates. “Now go forth and make things much better—really fast.”

“We need to remember how lucky we are [that] we make art. Art is how we... tell stories and find our way.”
Brian Selznick 88 IL

And in offering concluding congratulations, author/illustrator Brian Selznick 88 IL notes that though this year’s graduates are not yet able to celebrate in a traditional manner, they are strongly connected to people everywhere struggling through the pandemic.

“To the Class of 2020, the class of perfect vision, with the distinct and very strange honor of being the first class in RISD history to graduate from the privacy of your own homes... today you are walking into something vast and scary and unknown,” Selznick says. ”But the… entire world is walking with you.”

“We’re doing it together. And we need to remember,” Selznick urged, “how lucky we are [that] we make art. Art is how we breathe as a species, how we tell stories and find our way.”

Robert Albanese

Watch the full video on RISD’s 2020 Commencement site.