Every student had a personal island, a white plastic folding chair surrounded on all sides by 6 feet of nothing.
They all sat there on the football field at Union Stadium in Mead, many of them sweating in their navy blue gowns on a balmy Mother’s Day. Heat waves shimmered above the green synthetic turf.
Compared to the Gonzaga University class of 2020’s all-virtual commencement, this year’s ceremony felt practically normal. Sure, it was socially distanced and held outdoors at Mead High School’s football stadium instead of in the Spokane Arena.
And yes, the school conducted three smaller undergraduate commencements, spread throughout the day, instead of holding one big gathering. A few hundred students who majored in humanities and social sciences awaited commencement Sunday afternoon, part of a class of 2,253 undergraduate, graduate and law students celebrating during five outdoor ceremonies this weekend.
But there were brief moments when you forgot about the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students still rose, in alphabetized row after alphabetized row, to line up for their diplomas. They took their masks off for a few moments when they crossed the stage, then hastily tied them back around their ears before returning to their little islands.
Family and friends did their best to cheer their students on, although it was difficult to be deafening because each graduate was capped at four guests, and the stands were mostly empty after the 50-yard line. The shouts and claps were exuberant but relatively quiet.
“Go Brooke, we love you!” “That’s my baby, whooo!” “Let’s go!”
Gonzaga President Thayne McCulloh gave the commencement address. He told the students that living through the pandemic, experiencing a “trial by fire,” will ultimately make them better people.
“You are stronger and more resilient,” McCulloh said. “The virus reminded us how interwoven we really are.”
Fese Elango, Gonzaga’s Student Body Association president, said she’ll never forget Bulldog Alley, the main brick-lined path through campus, and told her classmates to think of the people and experiences of their lives like the alley’s bricks.
Some bricks are in good shape; in place, Elango said. These are the people who supported you along the way, your friends, family and teachers.
Others are cracked, or missing. Those are the pandemic times, or when you were depressed or homesick.
“Believe in yourself,” Elango said. “But also believe in the bricks.”
McCulloh left the students with five pieces of advice.
Nurture the people around you. Find a job that you love, rather than seeking wealth and prestige. Build people up, don’t bring them down. “When the going gets tough, keep moving.” Never forget that you’re a miracle, and God loves you.
The ceremony ended with a hiccup, almost as if everyone had gotten rusty at ending graduations after missing in-person ceremonies last year.
The newly graduated Bulldogs were never given a clear cue to toss their mortarboards. A few hesitantly flung theirs into the air, out of sync, but most simply kept their caps on before they were told to leave the stadium to allow staff to prepare for the next commencement group a few hours later.
“The journey is just beginning,” McCulloh said. “You are cleared for takeoff. God bless you and congratulations.”
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