A conversation with Pavan Patel, president of the Johns Hopkins Class of 2020

Patel helped plan this year's virtual Commencement ceremony, crowdsourcing ideas from the Class of 2020 to create a one-of-a-kind interactive celebration

As the senior class president, Pavan Patel has shepherded the Class of 2020 through an unusual school year. During a meeting in March with Johns Hopkins University President Ronald J. Daniels, Patel learned this year's Commencement ceremony would be held virtually because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pavan Patel

Image caption: As senior class president, Pavan Patel acts as a liaison between the Class of 2020 and the JHU administration. This year, presidential duties included figuring out plans for the university's first-ever digital Commencement.

Together with the Commencement office, board of trustees, senior class council, and Peabody student leaders, Patel helped lead the planning process, organizing a Commencement ceremony unlike any other in the university's history.

The Hub caught up with Patel to discuss the upcoming ceremony, the resilience of the senior class, and the responsibility of leadership in the time of COVID-19.

How has planning for a virtual Commencement differed from the process in past years?

Our role as student leaders and representatives has become more important during this time to bridge this gap between students and the university administration.

We all have this common goal of making sure that students feel heard and that their ideas are given thought and due consideration. I think that I can confidently say that we've risen to that challenge. What we did is we set up this Idea Lab campaign to make sure that students of the Class of 2020 had a chance to make their feedback and ideas heard and peer-evaluated.

We were looking to incorporate any ideas that any of the seniors had. Each idea that came through the Idea Lab was discussed among members of the Commencement Office, secretary of the board of trustees, senior class council, and Peabody leaders. If it was feasible at all, we worked on executing it.

What kind of ideas came from the planning process?

Student in cap poses for a photo
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Commencement 2020

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There are three components to our plans: an in-person redo Commencement ceremony, hosting our senior weekend activities during Young Alumni Weekend, and the virtual Commencement. Before the pandemic, the class council and Senior Week Committee worked hard to get senior week activities together, but since that's not going to be happening this spring, they've been moved to Young Alumni Weekend during the fall. So things like the Gilman clock tower tours and the Senior Toast will be held then.

In addition to the Idea Lab campaign, we've been fielding comments and suggestions sent to our senior class council email and the Commencement office email. As a result of the work that the group has done and the participation that we've gotten from seniors themselves, I think that we're going to be able to create a Commencement that not only honors the graduates this spring but also ensures that they have an active part in the ceremony.

As a result of those comments and conversations we've had through the Idea Lab, the Commencement office is putting together a montage with student-provided photos and videos. There's also going to be a virtual ceremony chat box, and performances that Peabody students put together. There's something pretty remarkable that we're able to actually have more engaged interaction with the Commencement ceremony this year than we might otherwise have had.

Why was it important to incorporate ideas from the Class of 2020 in the ceremony plans?

I think the seniors' involvement is important because it's an opportunity to properly celebrate our accomplishments and help us as a class to have a moment of closure and a last hurrah to celebrate ourselves and the work that we put in to reach this moment. But this is not just a time for us to celebrate ourselves—it's a time to honor those who have helped get us to this moment and say thank you in a proper way.

What has it been like to be class president in such an unusual year?

It really is a true honor to serve as the president of this Class of 2020 because right now is a time when the role becomes even more important to ensure that the students feel heard and that their ideas are valued throughout this process. And so, by using the role and the capacity to convene these stakeholders, we're able to make sure that they're valued and feel valued.

How did it feel to give your remarks in advance without a crowd to watch you?

Well, I was looking forward to having a last chance to thank the Class of 2020 for the opportunity and reflect as a class on our time at Hopkins. But I think that the virtual one will hopefully match up to the in-person one.

Is there anything you would like to say to the Class of 2020, a parting message of sorts?

I guess I would say thank you for hanging in there. I'm looking forward to celebrating again properly in person when the situation allows, and I'm looking forward to staying in touch in the coming years.

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