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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Worth the wait: Two years of Whitworth graduates cross the graduation stage Sunday

Whitworth University graduates, like 2020 and 2021 graduating classes throughout the country, have plenty of reason to be bitter about what COVID-19 did to their college years.

The class of 2020 lost its senior spring, and the class of 2021 had nearly a year-and-a-half of its college experience completely upended by the pandemic.

Students traded classroom discussions for Zoom meetings, lost athletic seasons and missed precious hours with close friends with whom they might never again spend much time .

“I did lose out on a lot of memories,” Austin Spillman, class of 2020, said.

And yet, despite it all, most Whitworth graduates didn’t show a trace of bitterness on Sunday. They were simply grateful they got to have an in-person graduation at all.

“I think it was really special,” Will Skalstad, class of 2021, said.

Whitworth held three graduations this weekend at the Pine Bowl – the school’s football field and track.

On Saturday, 130 class of 2021 graduate students received their degrees.

On Sunday afternoon, 421 class of 2021 undergraduates walked across the stage to get their diplomas. And in the evening, the class of 2020 finally got its graduation ceremony, albeit a year late. In attendance were 277 undergraduates and 56 graduate students.

In typical pandemic graduation fashion, the Pirates moved their ceremonies outside. Normally the Whitworth graduation is held at the Spokane Arena, not in the more scenic Pine Bowl, ringed by tall ponderosas.

It was a cool, overcast day. Students sat in socially distanced, white plastic folding chairs on the football field.

Friends and family sat in folding chairs behind them and in the bleachers. Each student could invite two guests. That made for a somewhat oddly seated graduation audience, with most friends and family sitting side-by-side in little two-person islands.

While attendance on the field was limited, some families still arrived in greater numbers. They decided it was better to watch graduation in-person through the chain-link fence around the stadium than to watch the ceremony on Zoom, even if that meant watching from a hundred yards away.

Students said they were pleased with how graduation went.

“I think they did the best they could do,” senior Travis Herrera said, adding that he felt glad he wasn’t the one who had to plan the unusually complicated event.

Being capped at two guests was somewhat sad, students said. Most gave their tickets to their parents.

Holly Bohnert, class of 2021, noted that “it’s kind of a bummer you couldn’t shake (Whitworth University President) Beck (Taylor)’s hand” when crossing the graduation stage.

The pandemic wreaked havoc on the past two school years, Whitworth students said, but it wasn’t all bad.

“This year has been filled with so many beautiful things,” said Hannah Mumm, one of the two senior speakers at the class of 2021 ceremony.

Skalstad said that as a business major, he’s been taught to view challenges as opportunities. Getting used to interacting online will be good practice for when he has to telecommute or hold Zoom meetings professionally.

“It took away the social aspect,” Skalstad said of the pandemic, “but it really taught you the value of being flexible.”

Herrera, a decathlete on the Pirates track and field team, lost his junior year outdoor track season. But he said he’s not going to remember his last year-and-a-half in college as a miserable experience. Whitworth did a good job creating a sense of community throughout the pandemic, he said.

Graduation had a different vibe for the class of 2020. Some of those students – who mostly haven’t had classes in a year – said they had to think before coming to Sunday’s ceremony. Last year felt so long ago, they said, and they weren’t as emotionally invested in the long-postponed event.

For the ones who did attend, the chance to see friends was a big draw.

“It’s been a whole year; a lot of isolation,” Micah Huie said. “A lot of goodbyes kind of got cut short last year.”

Huie graduated twice this weekend, first on Saturday as a graduate student and again on Sunday as a class of 2020 undergrad. He wants to be a teacher and said the pandemic hasn’t hurt his job search. If anything, the pandemic has helped and increased the number of jobs available, because many teachers have quit during the last year.

The class of 2021 graduated before the class of 2020, in the early afternoon.

Their graduation didn’t end with a gleeful fling of mortarboards into the air.

Instead, because of social distancing guidelines, it ended with students filtering out of the Pine Bowl in single-file, 6 feet apart and masked.

There were fewer people. The hugs didn’t start until everyone had filtered out of the stadium.

But there were still bagpipes playing. And it’s still better than nothing, Huie said.

“It doesn’t feel less special.”