Sunshine floods through a series of skylights hidden in an oddly shaped ceiling.

New beginnings: U of T celebrates Class of 2021 at virtual fall convocation ceremony

It’s typically proud parents who wipe away tears of joy on graduation day, but roles were reversed for Amanda Deeley during the University of Toronto’s virtual fall convocation.

Deeley, a U of T student pursuing a graduate degree in sociology, took to Twitter to publicly congratulate her mother, Jane Reeves, for fulfilling her long-held dream of returning to university to acquire a master’s degree from U of T’s Faculty of Information.

“She had intended to for our whole childhood… but then she was working supporting the family and never really had that time,” said Deeley, who, like her mom, is a single parent who returned to university as a mature student. “I felt a little bit teary eyed. To see her actually accomplish this – during the pandemic – is just really inspiring and I’m really proud of her.”

Reeves, for her part, said graduating felt like turning over a new leaf.

“What’s really good about it – what’s best – is that by the time I got here, I knew that it wasn’t an end,” she said. “It was, rather, a new beginning.”

U of T President Meric Gertler (right) said the endeavours of U of T graduates “have shaped the world we live in and the way we understand that world.”

Deeley’s mom was one of more than 5,700 students from 70 countries who received their degrees in absentia at U of T’s fall convocation ceremony – and one of several U of T grads who proved there’s never a bad time to reinvent yourself or simply pursue a passion for learning.  

The virtual ceremony celebrating the Class of 2021 featured many of the hallmarks of past U of T convocations, including organ music, a procession led by the bedel – who carries U of T’s gold-plated mace, a symbol of the university’s history and authority – and an exchange in Latin between U of T President Meric Gertler and Chancellor Rose Patten, who officially confers the degrees.

President Gertler congratulated graduates for reaching the finish line, thereby joining the 600,000-strong community of U of T alumni around the world.

“They are the university’s living legacy and our greatest ambassadors,” President Gertler said of U of T graduates. “Their endeavours have shaped the world we live in and the way we understand that world.”

He also thanked the Class of 2021 for their contributions to the university as students – and acknowledged the friends and relatives who helped each student on the road to convocation.

“I’m sure all graduates share a sense of gratitude to the friends and family members who have helped bring them to this special day.”

The president and chancellor were joined by Brian D. Lawson, chair of U of T’s Governing Council. Student governors Andrew Chen and Mozynah Nofal served as esquires, while alumnus David Simon played the organ.

The ceremony’s convocation speaker was Lesra Martin, a leading civil lawyer, motivational speaker, author and graduate of Innis College. He saluted the graduating class for earning their degrees in unusually trying circumstances.

“A pandemic may have taken away how you celebrate, but it has not taken away the significance of this great event,” Martin said.

Martin said that being asked to speak at convocation prompted him to reflect on his own education and those who supported him, including his late grandmother who did not have the same opportunities.

“She told me once how she made a promise to herself that she would do whatever it took to build and enable a better life for her children,” he said. “I remembered how reliable she was, how strong she was. I have come to recognize, you see, that I had my start by standing on her shoulders, reaching up and grabbing the reins of hope offered by my university – the University of Toronto.”

Born one of eight children in a troubled part of New York City, Martin received tutoring with the help of Canadian philanthropists and was able to enrol at U of T, graduating with a degree in anthropology and political science. He’s widely known for helping clear the name of Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter, a Black prizefighter whose career was cut short after being falsely accused of a triple murder in a case involving racial bias and prosecutorial misconduct. Martin and his Canadian family sifted through piles of evidence to exonerate Carter, a story retold in the 1999 film The Hurricane starring Denzel Washington as Carter.

Martin urged the Class of 2021 to use the skills and knowledge they acquired in university to address issues facing the world today: climate change, gender equality, racial and cultural equity, reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples and the pandemic.

“Don’t be afraid to take some risks along the way. Be brave,” he said. “Where you start does not mean that is where you will necessarily end up. The world might seem upside down right now, but you can help make things right side up.”

Marquela Nunes, who is graduating from U of T Scarborough with a degree in English and creative writing, is taking such advice to heart. She is using the fantasy book genre as a way to implement change by inviting her readers to imagine a better world.

“It’s almost too raw to write non-fiction because I’m not content with the world we live in,” said Nunes, whose debut novel takes inspiration from mythologies and histories of West Africa and Central Asia.

The Class of 2021 was also celebrated by their faculties colleges and campuses. Three student welcome ambassadors and 26 divisional ambassadors, as well as university leaders, made brief appearances to salute graduates and wish them well as they take their next steps.

“University is one of those really, really cool areas where the majority of folks are young adults that are looking to start something – start that next chapter of their life, or folks that are coming back after having done things outside and are looking to pivot or grow more,” said Amna Adnan, U of T Mississauga’s welcome ambassador, who graduated with an honours bachelor degree in science.

Lesra Martin

Convocation speaker and Innis College graduate Lesra Martin, a leading civil lawyer and motivational speaker, urged the Class of 2021 to use their skills and knowledge to address issues ranging from climate change to reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

Daniel Del Gobbo graduated with a doctor in juridical science from the Faculty of Law and is pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship at McGill University, where he’s researching the possibilities of restorative justice to address systemic human rights violations and promote reconciliation with LGBTQ2 peoples.

But first, Del Gobbo planned to unwind with a little baking for himself, his partner and family – on the menu: a sticky toffee pudding.

“I try to find any excuse to bake,” he said. “If a career in legal academia doesn’t work out, then I’m setting my sights on being a contestant on the Great Canadian Baking Show!”

Gloria Williams, on the other hand, already enjoyed a successful career as a nurse in the U.K. and Toronto. But that didn’t stop her from fulfilling her wish to earn a degree from U of T four decades after she began studies at the university.

The retired nurse earned an honours bachelor degree in sociology, Caribbean studies and political science this week, helping to satisfy her passion for lifelong learning.

“It was not the path most people take,” said Williams, a member of Woodsworth College. “But I am over the moon to be graduating.”

Jacqueline Wetton, a mother of two who – out of concern for the environment – opted to return to school to obtain a degree in nursing instead of continuing to work in the oil sands industry, watched the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing’s online reception with her husband while her mom, a retired nurse, tuned in from Nova Scotia.

“The kids were at school but we will celebrate with a little cake tonight,” Wetton wrote in an email. “I’m sure they will be more excited about the cake than the actual reason behind it though:)”

As for Reeves, she says she’s realized what she’s always suspected.

“Learning doesn’t ever end. It continues,” she said. “Achieving this opens new vistas of understanding. That’s the best part. That and the fact that my daughters – I have two, Amanda and Laura – are proud of me.”

Story by Geoffrey Vendeville. Courtesy of U of T News.