On Saturday, October 16, Caltech celebrated its 2020 and 2021 graduates with an in-person fall commencement event on Beckman Mall in which 299 recent alumni (206 bachelors, 15 masters, and 78 PhD degree recipients) were afforded their long-awaited opportunity to hear their names read, process across a stage, and—in the case of those who had received their PhDs during the previous two virtual commencement ceremonies—be hooded in front of some 573 alumni, friends, and family.
"This is a long and eagerly awaited opportunity to honor you, Caltech's newest alumni, on this stage," President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics, said as he began the celebration, briefly pausing in his remarks to applaud those in attendance.
"Graduates, throughout your years at Caltech, and in the months since you completed your degrees, you have exemplified some of the Institute's most cherished ideals: friendship and collegiality in a time of separation; courage in the face of unforeseen challenges; and tenacity in the pursuit of knowledge that will transform the future," Rosenbaum continued.
The event, held in conjunction with the Caltech Alumni Association's Reunion Weekend, brought a number of other returning graduates back to Pasadena. In attendance at the celebration were three of the 2021 Distinguished Alumni Award recipients: Barbara Burger (PhD '87), Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95), and Col. Robert Behnken (MS '93, PhD '97), with the latter stepping to the podium to offer a keynote address.
In introducing Behnken, Rosenbaum noted that "during his 20-year career with NASA, Colonel Behnken literally has risen to extraordinary new heights and, in so doing, contributed to the frontiers of human space exploration."
Behnken became a NASA astronaut in 2000 after receiving his doctorate in mechanical engineering at Caltech in 1997. A native of Missouri, he is a veteran of three space flights, taking part in space shuttle missions STS-123 in March 2008 and STS-130 in February 2010. He most recently served as joint operations commander on the first crewed flight of the SpaceX Crew Dragon, the Demo-2 mission. He has accumulated 93 days in space and 61 hours of extravehicular activity time during a record 10 spacewalks, according to NASA.
"I'm honored to be one of the very first to congratulate you on your academic achievements," Behnken told the graduates. "...As each of you go forward—pursuing further education, beginning a career focused on your chosen discipline, or even shifting tracks and pursuing a completely new endeavor—the challenge of your time at Caltech has molded you and evolved you. It has made you a scientist who pursues facts, a skeptic who considers all possibilities, and has given you experience with the challenges and toil associated with pushing the boundaries of the possible and the frontier of human understanding. Take the breadth of experiences you encountered during your time here as a challenge to be continued."
Vice President for Student Affairs Kevin M. Gilmartin presented the 2020 and 2021 graduates in attendance who hold Bachelor of Science degrees, followed by David C. Chan, dean of graduate studies, who called the names of the 2020 and 2021 graduates in attendance who hold the Master of Science degree.
David Lee (PhD '74), chair of the Caltech Board of Trustees, then joined Rosenbaum for one of Caltech's most cherished traditions, the PhD hooding ceremony. Doctoral graduates from each of Caltech's six academic divisions were called on stage by their respective division chairs.
While the mood was joyous, safety precautions were taken to protect against the spread of the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Only guests who had registered in advance were able to attend the ceremony, and attendees were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 viral test in order to enter. All attendees were required to wear face coverings during the entire event.
Rosenbaum closed the celebration by noting the contributions new Caltech alumni have made to the campus and the Caltech community at large.
"We know that the future will bring continuing achievement, discovery, and transformation, and we look forward to sharing your adventures, wherever they may lead," he said.
A recording of the event—which was livestreamed on YouTube—is available for viewing.