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Oprah saved Facebook’s graduation ceremony to remember

Facebook’s ambitious attempt to create a collective commencement for seniors worked as a show but may have been cold comfort for anyone entering the job market.

Oprah saved Facebook’s graduation ceremony to remember
[Photo: courtesy of Facebook; Benjaminrobyn Jespersen/Unsplash; rawpixel]
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Even with many states reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic, traditional graduation ceremonies have largely been disrupted by social distancing precautions.

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While some schools have gone to the lengths of incorporating holograms in their ceremonies, others have cancelled altogether.

Knowing that high school and college seniors wouldn’t get the celebration they deserved, Facebook created a star-studded, two-hour event honoring 2020 graduates.

Hosted by Mindy Kaling and BJ Novak, Facebook’s graduation ceremony went state by state with clips from seniors and their families playing while a list of high schools and universities in that state scrolled in the background. Interspersed throughout the event were encouraging words from celebrities and athletes including Matthew McConaughey, Cardi B, Hugh Jackman, Simone Biles, Miley Cyrus, and more.

All of it was capped off by a commencement address from Oprah Winfrey.

“We put out an invitation to this and got an overwhelming response from public figures who just wanted to participate,” says producer Rhett Bachner, cofounder of B17 Entertainment. “They didn’t care about getting paid. They wanted to be able to inspire people in this moment. That’s the upside of the environment we’re in, which is just a willingness to participate, even if we can’t create production scenarios that are as evolved as we normally do.”

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While Bachner and his team had the advantage of using prerecorded material instead of dealing with all the uncertainties of a live event, there was still the hurdle of stitching together all the celebrity and graduate videos into a coherent thread.

“The biggest challenge is you’re trying to do something that’s really heavy in volume,” Bachner says. “This is of the people, for the people, and that doesn’t work if you’re not able to represent hundreds of kids in every state. So if you think about thousands and thousands of photos and videos being submitted and having to curate all of that into watchable content, that is a challenge.”

And it was watchable.

Aside from a few hiccups—the show started 30 minutes late and the feed cut in and out in the first few minutes—Facebook pulled off a rather ambitious event.

But that, in a way, was also its main problem.

While there’s logic in having one mega event that encompassed both high and college students, the saccharine message of “Everything’s gonna be alright!” hits a little different when you’re talking to graduates entering the work force rather than more years of school.

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More than 36 million American workers have filed for unemployment due to the pandemic. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that national unemployment rate hit 14.7% by mid-April, the highest level reached since the Great Depression. To be sure, the long-term effects of the pandemic are uncertain. Students entering college or grad school now may well have to contend with the current fallout whenever they complete their educational journey.

But there’s an undeniable immediacy for graduates entering the workforce now.

Although graduation is always a time for celebration, Facebook might’ve done well to have an event tailored specifically for college graduates—one that relied less on Queer Eye‘s Fab Five giving their top 20 reasons why Gen Z is so rad (indeed, they are) and leaned more into practical advice for managing a massively disrupted job market.

Of course no one has the answers, but, out of all the speakers, Oprah, naturally, came the closest.

Here are some highlights from her commencement address:

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I know you may not feel like it, but you are indeed the chosen class for such a time as this, the class of 2020. You’re also a united class, the pandemic class that has the entire world striving to graduate with you. . . . But even though there may not be pomp because of our circumstances, never has a graduating class been called to step into the future with more purpose, vision, passion, and energy and hope.

So can you use this disorder that COVID-19 has wrought? Can you treat it as an uninvited guests that’s come into our midst to reorder our way of being? Can you, the class of 2020, show us not how to put the pieces back together again but how to create a new and more evolved normal, a world more just, kind, beautiful, tender, luminous, creative, whole? We need you to do this because the pandemic has illuminated the vast systemic inequities that have defined life for too many, for too long . . . . You have the power to stand for, to fight for, and vote for healthier conditions that will create a healthier society. This moment is your invitation to use your education to begin to heal our afflictions by applying the best of what you’ve learned in your head and felt in your heart.

What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? The fact that you’re alive means you’ve been given a reprieve to think deeply about that question. How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community, and the world?

In many respects, Facebook’s graduation event deserves kudos. It did, in fact, feel like an honest attempt to inject some positivity into bleak times during what would otherwise be one of the happiest days in a young person’s life.

But at this point, more than two months into the pandemic, redundant messages of encouragement from celebrities is starting to feel like a hollow pat on the back.

Especially for graduates trying to forge a career in this current economy.

About the author

KC covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at "Good Morning America," where he was the social media producer.

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