To our 2020 AIM graduates, their families and supporters; our AIM faculty and staff; and all others who are here to join in the celebration of our 2020 AIM graduating class—welcome. I’d like to start as I do at each graduation luncheon by honoring the families and friends who supported our graduates throughout the AIM Program. Every one of our AIM graduates has worked hard to achieve the right to stand here today as a graduate of the program, but every graduate also had the help and encouragement of their families and loved ones who supported them on their journey from AIM student to AIM graduate. The role that each of you played—as supporters of our AIM graduates—is an important one, and I would like to say thank you.
AIM Class of 2020, you are completing your degree at a time of unprecedented change and upheaval. Our governor’s shelter-in-place order, like many others that resulted from the COVID-19 outbreak, has shuttered travel, local businesses, and our college campuses. As a result, we are participating in your graduation celebration via Zoom today rather than gathering to celebrate your accomplishments in person. I can’t help but feel however that it is somehow fitting that the final AIM graduation ceremony is being held online. The AIM Program was the first fully online program at the University of Oregon. Each of you has completed your lectures, course meetings, discussions, and assignments via online tools. I am very disappointed that I won’t be celebrating with you, your families, and your supporters in person, but I am gratified that you agreed to extend your online studies to a remote graduation celebration.
College campuses are not the only places that have been impacted by the COVID-19 virus. We can no longer engage in activities that we’ve taken for granted – going out for a meal, attending a sporting event, traveling by air. I don’t think it is melodramatic to say that the world is facing one of the biggest challenges in modern history. However, if I had to pick a group of people that I believe are best equipped to navigate the changes and uncertainty the world now faces, I would pick this graduating class. Each of you, collectively and as individuals, has displayed during your time in the AIM Program the traits that academics, psychologists, business leaders, and others have identified as critical to surviving and thriving in this new world of social distancing and fully electronic communications. I have compiled a list of the traits that a variety of these experts have presented as critical for thriving in a post pandemic world; I’d like to share the list with you.
I will start with a trait that all the AIM graduates share, and a trait that has been honored and strengthened throughout your time in the program: facility with technology as a means of communication. Since the widespread shelter-in-place orders took effect, online collaboration tools like Slack and Zoom have experienced enormous increases in usage. Slack saw an 80% increase in subscribers between February 1 and March 25th, while Zoom went from hosting 200 million meeting participants a day in March—a record at the time— to currently hosting over 300 million meeting participants a day. But long before the rest of the world turned to online communication channels, the AIM graduates thrived in an online world. All of you entered the AIM Program with an understanding of the importance of technology in business today, and with a desire to expand your technological toolset. Each of you also willingly signed up for two and a half years of distance education. In addition to completing your master’s degree completely online, your cohort went further by creating a Slack channel to foster communication outside of class, stay connected, and keep up on each other’s daily lives. One of the reasons for creating your Slack channel was necessity, as your cohort is spread out around the world, but it also reflects your comfort and facility with the tools and technology that have enabled the world to stay connected during the pandemic. You harnessed the power of digital communication tools before these tools became a part of everyone’s daily lives.
The next trait on the list is empathy. This pandemic has been a universally frightening event that has caused feelings of anxiety and vulnerability. Eventually, we will move beyond the current crisis, but the world as we have known it will be different, and the rebuilding process will pose hardships that will test us. We will need empathy to not only weather the current crisis, but to also rebuild and reconnect. Peter Sterling, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, notes that engaging in empathetic and altruistic behavior triggers the release of dopamine in both the person receiving the empathy and the person providing it, a desirable outcome since dopamine positively impacts learning, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, and a variety of physical functions. His message is that in the midst of this crisis, the exercise of empathy is important not just on a micro scale, but on a macro scale. In today’s world of viral stories and Facebook videos, the impact of an altruistic act can ensure that the dopamine that is released is not just shared between the giver and the receiver of the empathetic behavior, but by everyone who shares in an emotionally uplifting story. One example Sterling provides is the neighbors in Italy, serenading each other from their balconies, and the viral videos of the songs that were viewed and shared by people around the world.
We are all interconnected, even as we shelter in place in our homes and maintain 6 feet of distance between others in the grocery store. One of the great lessons from this pandemic is the notion of supporting each other and acting for the common good. This is a mindset that I have seen played out for this cohort throughout your time in AIM and has continued now that your studies are complete. You have celebrated significant milestones: new jobs, a new baby, a deployment overseas, a move across the country. At a time when you were asked to research and complete a challenging Capstone paper, you took the time to provide other cohort members with ideas and research articles on their topics. And you have supported each other through trying times— juggling work, family, and a rigorous master’s program; working through challenging assignments; and all of those significant milestones. As we move into the challenges in the days ahead, I am confident that this group of graduates will continue to look outside of yourselves and contribute to the common good.
If there is a single trait that has been the focus of every article on how to survive the current challenges posed by COVID-19 and the concerns about the aftermath, it is resilience. As I was preparing this speech, I ran across an opinion piece titled “The Class of 2020 will be graduating online. They’re not happy about it.” The author, Nancy Darling, a professor of Psychology at Oberlin College, defined the term resilient as “what they call you when really bad things happen, and you manage to keep your head above water.” I would counter with my own definition, which is the ability to keep focused on and striving towards a goal, even when the obstacles appear overwhelming. All of you faced a moment at least once during the AIM Program when the obstacles between you and graduation seemed overwhelming and yet, here you are. While I’m not trying to equate the rigors of a master’s program with the challenges of a global pandemic, I do hope, as you move forward and face the challenges we know are coming, that each of you will remember those moments when you expressed doubt about your ability to complete the program, and found a way to overcome the obstacles and achieve your goal. Each of you has already proven that you are resilient.
I am grateful that each of you made the choice to enroll in the AIM Program. Your choice has provided you with the opportunity to demonstrate the resilience and hard work needed to complete a challenging master’s program and acquire new skills and knowledge that will expand your career choices and meet the challenges of the future. I am proud of each one of you. Congratulations to you, AIM Class of 2020!