Heartbroken. That was how the whole University of Redlands community — not just graduates — felt at first about missing traditional Commencement ceremonies this April due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in the end, while recognizing the need for health and safety, community members found many outlets to express their irrepressible pride and appreciation of this year’s U of R graduates.
While some official university events have been postponed and reimagined for the fall, this week saw a slew of grass-roots celebrations honoring U of R graduates in creative, loving, and thoughtful ways. From living rooms to virtual chatrooms — within the College and throughout the School of Education and the School of Business — faculty, staff, parents, and friends found ways to recognize students.
The College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) transformed the Senior Honors Convocation into a virtual event, launching the Senior Honors Recognition site, which features faculty members presenting their student awards by video. The School of Education put together a video with advice from all its student award winners.
CAS student speaker Maxine Mchunguzi ’20 delivered her student Commencement speech on video, as did Denise Lopez ’20 from the School of Education and Carissa Gerry ’20 from the School of Business. Senecal Endowed Dean of the School of Business Thomas Horan delivered an appropriately social-distanced video congratulations to his constituents.
In keeping with its academic calendar, the Graduate School of Theology plans a small virtual celebration next month, and a double graduation for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 in May 2021.
Students and well-wishers are using the hashtag #congratsurclassof2020 on social media to celebrate U of R 2020 graduates.
In addition, many College departments have held virtual mini-Commencements to convey their support and commitment to graduating seniors.
The Biology Department hosted a Webex celebration for 26 students on April 17, the date CAS Commencement would have been held. Students chose a friend, family member, or member of the faculty to "present" them for their degree, and there was a toast at the end.
Biology Department Chair Lisa Olson said her department didn't want the day to pass without recognizing its significance: “We just felt really bad for all the seniors who had looked forward to this specific date for so long, and weren't going to have it recognized… So many of our students are first-generation—their graduation is huge, not just for themselves but for their extended families.”
Sofia Olsson ’20 remarked that the event was truly special: “My volleyball coaches and family were so happy to have been able to see a graduation.”
Carson Brett ’20 agreed. “My parents really appreciated it, and it made me feel like I received the recognition I wanted from Commencement.”
“We were determined to recognize the achievements of this cohort, and not let their graduation get lost in the chaos of campus being closed,” said Professor Heather King, who hosted the English Department’s virtual celebration on April 17.
Approximately 85 students and family members attended the virtual gathering.
“It was tremendously moving to read the families' comments to their grads and the students' comments to one another,” King said. “More than one student has reached out to me to tell me how much they appreciated the time faculty put into the event, and many have shared the event on their social media accounts. So it wasn't the real thing, but it was something, and I think the students know how much we care.”
One unexpected bonus? King says more alumni were able to participate in the graduation than usual: “Many of them watched the event and cheered on the younger class. That was really touching to see!”
The Environmental Studies Department also hosted a Webex celebration on April 17, which was open to the public, family, and friends of approximately 40 graduating seniors—including the first students graduating with a new degree, a B.S. in Sustainable Business.
The virtual gathering, which was attended by more than 100 people, included a welcome while “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the background, faculty introductions, and a special remembrance of Professor Monty Hempel, who passed away unexpectedly in December. In addition to ceremonial elements, it included a time for students to share their thoughts, and many gave touching statements of thanks for their four years. They spoke about how much the event meant to them, as well as the department’s sense of community, its network of faculty, and their life-changing experiences with summer research opportunities and May Term travel courses.
Hillary S. Jenkins, chair of the Environmental Studies Department, addressed the students in the Class of 2020: “You are bright, talented, inquisitive, and kind… As scholars of the environment graduating during a time of profound uncertainty…, you are the abrupt shift from bad to good — whether this means fighting for environmental justice, studying ecosystem functioning and global change, opening sustainable businesses, or simply bringing a stronger understanding of the natural world to whatever job or environment you find yourself in — you will make it better.”
Health, Medicine, and Society
There was only one student — Hunter Olivier ’20 — graduating from the Health, Medicine, and Society (HMS) program, but that didn’t stop Professor James Krueger, HMS program director, from hosting a Webex surprise session on April 8. Attendees included HMS juniors, the women’s water polo team (which Olivier was part of) and coach, and family and friends.
“Well over 30 people were on call at its peak, and it was just a chance for everyone to share stories and well-wishes for Hunter,” Krueger said.
Olivier commented: “I was shocked at the number of people who were on to celebrate me and my accomplishments. I loved listening to all the stories and memories being told about me. My emotions were running wild and my heart was full of love. This little celebration did give me a sense of closure and helped my mental state knowing my hard work hasn’t gone unnoticed. The best part about the celebration was seeing everyone’s face and hearing the positive impacts I had made. I struggled a lot through this difficult time of my senior year and senior season of water polo being canceled, but this little gathering helped me know that this isn’t the end!”
Physics Department Chair Eric Hill also hosted a surprise for his students on April 10. At the final Webex class meeting of the Physics Junior/Senior Seminar, Hill invited three faculty colleagues to make guest appearances.
“Those of us who had our academic regalia slipped on our caps, gowns, and hoods,” Hill said. “I announced who was receiving the departmental awards, and I read a silly little commencement speech I’d prepared. I know the students were taken by surprise, and I think both juniors and seniors were really touched that we’d thought to get together and honor our seniors.”
Director of Production Trevor Norton hosted an event live-streamed on Facebook for the Theatre Arts Department’s virtual celebration on April 3. All 13 Theatre Arts graduates presented their work to approximately 80 attendees logged on to Facebook. “It was an emotional event,” Norton said. “We had a remarkable group of students from a variety of disciplines within theatre, and we ended it with our traditional toast.”
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