Cassia Caruth and Gina Kovalik, both Trinity ‘20, sat in the shade of the Duke Chapel archway, enjoying the cool Saturday morning. As alumni returning to Duke for the delayed Class of 2020 commencement, they took the weekend to stroll through campus and remember old times: memories of deep conversations with classmates on Abele Quad or meals with friends at the Brodhead Center.
“I looked up onto the second floor [of the Brodhead Center], and I saw the spot where my friend asked me to be her maid of honor. And I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I remember when she asked me when we were right there having breakfast!’” Caruth said. “So I feel like I've been walking around campus with a huge smile on my face.”
On Friday and Saturday, Duke welcomed back the Class of 2020 for commencement festivities after a 16-month delay due to COVID-19. Thousands of alumni paused their new lives to return to the campus they had called home for almost four years. Together, they reminisced about their pre-pandemic college lives, reunited with old friends and checked off items from long overdue senior bucket lists.
Kovalik grew up in Durham, so Duke feels like home to her. Still, a lot of time has gone by since she was an undergraduate—she now works as a research technician and lives in New York, which, to her, is very different from Durham.
“I’m at a different stage of my life,” Kovalik said. “It’s very sweet to be back and just to feel at home for a little bit.”
Caruth and Kovalik were waiting their turn to climb the Chapel, a hallmark senior tradition. They had both climbed it before as students, but climbing one last time as alumni came with a strong feeling of finality.
However, both wished they could have shared this moment with their families—Chapel climbing was reserved for graduates only.
“That's one thing I would love for Duke to consider, just for graduation weekend,” Caruth said.
As the group leader called Caruth and Kovalik to prepare for the climb, the previous group emerged from the Chapel staircase, out of breath.
“Treacherous!” Hannah Pridemore, Trinity ‘20, said. “That climb is not for the weak!”
The treachery of climbing 239 steps on a winding staircase was worth it, though. Pridemore and her friends experienced a breathtaking view of Duke and Durham during their first time on the Chapel roof.
“It made me feel accomplished, looking at campus and everything around us,” Pridemore said. “That was pretty sweet.”
Over at the Bryan Center Plaza, a table with sequins, markers and glitter glue was set up for the Class of 2020 to decorate their caps. Freddie Xu, Trinity ‘20, grabbed a bunch of markers and sat down, unsure of what to design.
When Xu was a junior, he attended the Class of 2019’s graduation for some of his friends and noticed that not many caps were decorated. Xu didn’t expect to have the chance to customize his cap, so the decoration station on the Bryan Center came as a special surprise.
“I'm just gonna draw some stuff and see what happens!” he laughed.
Xu arrived on campus on Friday. Seeing students coming and going between classes felt strange to him.
“I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I don’t have to do that anymore. That’s not me!’” he said.
The biggest change for Xu was the switch from Au Bon Pain to Panera at the Brodhead Center.
“I’m like, ‘Oh what? We never had that!’” he said. The lunchtime rush, however, felt just the same to him.
At 1 p.m., a symphony of voices swelled through the trees at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. Members of the Class of 2020 and their family members gathered at the Fisher amphitheater, where the Pitchforks a cappella group performed their annual Graduation Showcase. The group sang tunes ranging from “Surfer Girl” by The Beach Boys to James Taylor’s “Carolina in my Mind.” They also sang the folk song “Oh Shenandoah” as a tribute to those who lost their lives from COVID-19 and their families.
This showcase was dedicated to members from the Class of 2020, three of whom had returned to perform with the group: Kiran Nagar and Alex Pierson, both Trinity ‘20, and Sam Osheroff, Pratt ‘20. For the three graduates, coming back and singing with their a capella group felt natural.
“Everything comes back to you pretty quick. And it’s really, really fun. Even though we don’t know the guys as well, we feel like we know them,” Nagar said.
Pierson agreed. “That’s because the culture is still kind of the same, there’s still a bond that we all kind of share,” he said.
For Osheroff, the Graduation Showcase felt like long-awaited closure.
“You’re done with your time, you completed it, you sing the songs, and I have been missing that for a year and a half,” Osheroff said. “Getting that felt really, really spectacular.”
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Katie Tan is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.