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Sixteen Months Later, the Class of 2020 Gets the Commencement It Needs

Sabrina Maciariello will address her 2020 classmates during their delayed commencement ceremony Sunday on West Campus.

Sabrina Maciariello
Sabrina Maciariello will share her personal experience with loss and grief during the pandemic and show how that grief helped her build a stronger and more sustainable happiness.

To prepare for her address to the Class of 2020 this Sunday, Sabrina Maciariello took a look at the last decade of student commencement speeches to see what advice they gave their graduating classmates.

It didn’t take long before Maciariello had a realization: Her speech to the Class of 2020 would have to be very different from all the others.

The members of the Class of 2020 will always be ones who had to go home in the middle of their senior year, leaving campus during Spring Break without getting to say goodbye or to share four years of memories in person together. It’s a truism at Duke that a class comes together twice as a class – first for a photo as first-year students and the second time four years later for Commencement.

This class finally will get that second moment at 9 a.m. Sunday on Abele Quad. “We needed this ceremony in a way other classes hadn’t,” Maciariello said. “This is our chance for bonding and reconnecting. This is our time to honor our collective struggle, and experience warmth in the company of those who have supported us along that journey.”

And it’s a moment for the class to celebrate. Maciariello said she had fond memories of the virtual commencement “Marking the Moment,” but she thinks the long pandemic has made this in-person celebration essential.

“We need to have a moment to acknowledge the changes that we’ve undergone, both collectively and individually, and celebrate the resilience that has fortified our abilities to push through them.

“As a Duke student, many of us seldom took time to pause, process, and celebrate. And perhaps for good reason: there was always more work to be done and something to further improve. For me personally: I was often weighed down by this fear that slowing down would make me fall behind.”

She adds that this kind of competitiveness and hyper-productivity didn’t work during a pandemic. “I told myself that I could celebrate when it was all over – when I was sitting down in Wallace Wade, surrounded by my classmates who were feeling that similar sense of accomplishment. When we got the notification that our original graduation had been cancelled, I felt such a profound experience of grief.

“In the wake of so much collective pain and sadness, I was overcome with the realization that my undergraduate experience had been focused on many of the wrong things. I placed so much emphasis on making the most of my Duke experience, ensuring I would have the external accolades and accomplishments to show for it. Once it was all taken away, I was overcome with regret for not valuing the smaller, magical moments of connection and laughter with equal appreciation.”

It’s been a period of change for many of the class members, and Maciariello said she hopes these changes have introduced them to new perspectives on life, love and gratitude. “Some people may be starkly different from who they were before the pandemic,” Maciariello said. “There may be a lot of fear or anxiety in reconnecting with classmates, for that reason. But there’s also a lot of excitement.”

A psychology and global health double major, Maciariello made her way after graduation through an uneasy job market but also used the pandemic moment to create something personal. She still lives in Durham, working at the Veterans Affairs Administration as a psychology technician, but she also built a coaching and psychoeducation business that has built a community of more than 130,000 followers on Tik Tok and on Instagram.

The goal of the business is to create a space for people to address their fears of vulnerability and authenticity through empathy and connection. She is currently pursuing a 200-hour teaching certification in Instinctive Meditation, and she hopes eventually to earn her Ph.D. in counseling psychology.

Maciariello also worked in the theater as a student and has a particular interest in testimonial theater – a performance that uses personal narratives to highlight the lived experiences of trauma victims and those with marginalized identities. As a student she directed the MeToo Monologues, which she said “taught me how to elevate personal truths to catalyze collective healing in an audience.”

That experience helped her through the biggest loss she faced during the pandemic – the death of a younger brother. In her commencement speech, Maciariello will address her family’s loss but acknowledge the wider grief felt by all of her classmates during the pandemic, and how that shared experience of loss can help cultivate love, strength and gratitude.

“I generally dislike platitudes, but it’s true that you can’t know the full magnitude of happiness without sadness. It’s not that we need grief to have hope, but I do believe that the experience of grief makes hope feel more embodied and multidimensional.

“When I lost my younger brother, it was very unexpected. I used to think that there were certain things that people couldn’t come back from, and when I lost him, I thought that was mine. But truthfully, the pandemic has given me so much time and space for healing and growth.

“What grounded me the most was knowing where there was grief for my brother, there was also deep love. With that love, I found closure and motivation to connect to other people during a challenging and isolating time. And through that love, I have found a lot to be grateful for.

“Although I’ve faced immense loss this year, I don’t consider any of it to be a tragedy. I look back on this past year as a whole with so much appreciation: for the growth, for the opportunities, for the space for reflection, and most of all, for my partner. It’s hard to fathom how much has happened in one year. I got engaged in February, lost my brother in March, am finally graduating in September, and am getting married in December. The dance between grief and hope is intricate and beautiful, and I’m very excited to explore that more with the class on Sunday morning.