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HEC Paris Welcomes Graduates into Alumni Family

The 2020 Commencement Event was a first, not just for HEC Paris but for the global academic community. As the health crisis continues to shut down entire countries, higher education institutions needed imagination, abnegation and humor to celebrate the achievements of their students as they graduated into the professional world. HEC Paris showed equal measures of all three as a prelude to next year’s Official Ceremony.

 

In pre-COVID-19 times, it was to be an on-campus union of family, friends, academia and freshly-honored graduates. Like all the previous June’s, thousands of proud alumni and close-of-kin were to enjoy the final fruits of years of hard graft with flowing speeches, congratulatory hugs and flying mortarboards, before a well-earned buffet and photo opportunity. Well, given the health crisis, this has all been put on ice for a year.

Indeed, COVID-19 and its consequences upended these final three months for the Class of 2020 and Commencement Day saw an eerily quiet campus still coming to grips with a new era. “Still, what is graduation?” asked Dean Peter Todd, in the virtual event specially designed for the occasion. Speaking from the heart of the Jouy-en-Josas campus, he wore the traditional Talar gown in the HEC faculty colors of Burgundy red and purple, and made light of the surrealistic situation, alternating from humor to philosophy. “This is not your graduation. But it is a passage, a moment of reflection, dreams and hopes. The real spirit of graduation resides inside of you. Today, celebrate! Be purposeful; find meaning in your situation. This is a moment for words of praise for your accomplishments and words of advice.”

New and Inclusive World

The Commencement speeches were streamed live on Facebook and Youtube, drawing in thousands of students from the four corners of the globe. Following up on Dean Todd’s message, Margaux Cornu addressed her fellow-graduates with words of comfort: “Yes, this is an innovative way of celebrating, but it is also a faithful mirror of the 2020 class. The promotion’s students learnt to adapt to a unique crisis and be close to each other. We are grateful for the great communication and transparency in dealing with this tough situation.” Cornu then broadened her vision: “This pandemic is a cry from the Earth. We students have proven we want concrete action through the Hacking COVID-19 hackathon and creating startups related to the circular economy. These initiatives aim for a more sustainable and inclusive world and combating all forms of discrimination.”

© HEC Paris
Margaux Cornu during 2020 Commencement Event (© HEC Paris)

The MBA alumnus Elizabeth Miller underlined the enduring friendships she found during the program: “The real learning happened outside the classroom. I cherish these friendships, which I know will last a lifetime. I found my voice and will seek to build a more inclusive society. Thanks to the MBA, I know we have the tools to get us there.” Fellow MBA graduate Nikhil Nangia enjoyed turning the event on its head: “So what if The Class of 2020 did not get the graduation they were looking forward to (Ed: yet. The official graduation ceremony is set for June 2021)? Listening to my fellow graduates and the "closing ceremony" speeches, I realized that today was not an ending at all; instead, I see it now as an "opening ceremony" for The Class of 2020.”

Role Models for Alumni

Many of the graduates are part of the leading edge of Generation Z. EMBA alumnus Kadir Karaman shared his more experienced vision with the 2,000 tuning into the virtual ceremony: “We have gone through this transformative journey together. We learnt how to deal with ambiguity and be more resilient leaders. I and my fellow-students reached the finishing line at the same time as leading our businesses and guiding our teams on this turbulent period.”

One of the school’s most glittering alumni, Fidji Simo (H08), urged the graduates to shoot for the stars: “Never set limits to what you can accomplish,” said the head of Facebook App who began her life in a family of fishermen from Sète, France. “And, just as importantly, have fun in the process of progressing.” 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

@fidjissimo, Head of @facebookapp, congratulates our 2020 HEC Paris graduates #HECgrad20

Une publication partagée par HEC Paris (@hec_paris) le

Fellow alumnus Sylvia Metayer (H86), added a call for audacity: “Your deepest wish should be to dare to turn things round for meaningful careers,” said the Chief Growth Officer at Sodexo. “You should tackle issues to help us find solutions for a sustainable future.” As for Cecilia Weckstrom (H12), 2020 could be just the year the graduates were waiting for: “It’s been so painful and scary for many in the world,” said the Lego Group Senior Global Director. “This is a year that screams loudly and forces us to pay attention, to wake up and see how things work and how it’s meant to be.” So, Weckstrom admonished the freshly-admitted alumni: “We need to change, declare change, become the change. Maybe 2020 is the most important year of all.”

© HEC Paris
Cecilia Weckstrom, Senior Global Director at Lego Group, during 2020 Commencement Event

Zoom Exchanges

Following the general ceremony, the graduates joined one of 23 online sessions devoted to their specific promotion. 135 alumni from the MSc International Finance and the Finance Specialization of the Master in Management came together with their professors for an hour of informal exchange and advice, for example. Academic Director Alexei Ovtchinnikov first shared a “huge congratulations” for graduating from the most prestigious finance Master degree in the world. “Thanks to you guys for being so flexible and adaptable to these unprecedented changes.” Executive Director Olivier Bossard displayed his characteristic humor and wisdom in six keynotes pieces of advice, ranging from the use of virtual backgrounds and gestures in Zoom exchanges, to pleas for humility: “You are going to feel powerful, Yes, be proud. But don’t become arrogant, stay humble about it! Never forget that it’s not just you, there’s a big team behind you: a back office, a middle office, the reputation of the firm that brings you clients. Luck is also a part of your career. So, don’t let people around you change your personality, stay humble and you’ll achieve great things.”

Associate Professor Gachoucha Kretz also had words of optimism for her Zoom students in MSc Marketing: “Companies are currently looking for talents who are resilient and agile, and this is exactly what you have become in these turbulent times.” “My advice to you: be brave and be transparent,” added Andreas Lanz, Assistant Professor in Marketing. “Spread your wings, become brave marketers and, most importantly, be open to any opportunity on the horizon! Go conquer the world.”

Scientific Director of the Media, Art and Creation Master, Thomas Paris, was upbeat about developments in the cultural field: “After several exchanges with cultural actors recently, I remain optimistic. This period will translate into new opportunities, with a time to build a world that will be a little different, which is something we hope for. I personally feel we had a fine promotion this year who will seize these opportunities.”

Bold Graduates

The tweeted responses from the graduates came in thick and fast, from all over the world. “The graduation period is also the occasion to thank my great peers for their valuable feedback and advice, for their support and above all, thank you to my wife and kids that made it possible,” wrote EMBA alumnus Vincent Dufaux. PhD alumnus Zilu Shan lauded the support he had received over the years: “The (HEC) scholars’ passion for the excellence of research constantly inspires me. I consider myself privileged to be a part of the great academic community.” Meanwhile, in her speech, Constance Gouelo reminded her fellow-students in the Grande Ecole and Entrepreneurship Master of their duties to the global community: “We came into this Master with different goals and backgrounds, but we united in the will to learn, do and grow to be better citizens of the world and use our skill sets to help others. Not a day went by where we did not reach to our classmates and lend a help hand. Not a day has gone by and not a day will go by. We created a community of a lifetime.”

Long Journey

Understandably, the lack of an on-campus ceremony for the first time in HEC’s history left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of some newly-graduated students. But they chose to focus the novelty of the final months: “These interactive educational courses have really challenged us,” Eman Al Kuwari wrote as she graduated from her Executive Master in Strategic Business Unit Management. “I learned, shared, taught, lived and celebrated with amazing professionals and human beings from all over the world,” noted MBA graduate Victor Rodrigues Guerra. “Today, I am happy to have seen all of their faces even though we are thousands of miles apart. It’s been a long journey and I am glad to have had this experience in my life.”

At present, the alumni launch themselves into the worst job market since the Great Depression of the 1930s. And yet the graduates from the commencement day virtual ceremony will soldier on, having delivered their final papers and logged on for their last classes. Over these past months, they have cherished the increased time with family and Zoom life with students who have become friends. The “Congratulations, Class of 2020!” signs might pale against earlier held expectations, but eyes still filled with tears when their graduation was marked by the June 19 event .

However, the challenges remain. Said Grande Ecole graduate Constance Gouelo: “The world today, from global health pandemics to racial pandemics, from economic crisis to unemployment, has shown us that although changes have been made, there is still a long way to go.” Undoubtedly, the Class of 2020 will find encouragement in the turnaround the 2008 alumni managed after the previous great financial crisis rocked the world. Or, more recently how they were part of « a tremendous chain of solidarity » which bound the HEC community together during the COVID-19 health crisis.