The overcast Oregon weather held itself to a brief drizzle on Friday afternoon and provided a mostly dry welcome to Oregon State University’s graduating classes of 2020 and 2021. The graduation celebrations were two-fold this year, as an in-person march to Reser Stadium took place for thousands of graduates on Friday and an entirely virtual commencement ceremony was held Saturday.
Graduating classes from the past two springs were represented because commencement ceremonies were completely cancelled last year during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. One 2020 class member said that it was a gut punch to have the final, momentous occasion of his college career cancelled last June.
“It was super brutal, honestly,” said Jon Hopper, who graduated from the College of Liberal Arts with a degree in fine arts photography. “To be invited back to this and see all my old friends I haven’t seen in a year, it’s incredible.”
“You gotta be ready for anything if you want to go to college,” he added.
Graduates from the university's 11 colleges were gathered in groups along the streets in the block surrounding the Memorial Union. A group of professors, deans and university administrators made up the front of a procession led by a troupe of bagpipers and drummers. As they walked along the cordoned-off streets of the central campus and passed each group of graduates, the cohorts from each college took up stride behind them until thousands were marching toward Reser Stadium.
A group of faculty and students from the College of Business were posted up on a sidewalk corner as the parade came down, holding a giant banner congratulating their graduates. While faculty try to come out and show support every year, they said it was particularly necessary for these graduates who made it through difficult pandemic times.
“We miss our students terribly,” said Sandy Neubaum, executive director of student engagement for the College of Business. “More than any other year, this is one we needed to be here.”
Many faculty had the difficult task of reimagining the school year amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s been an innovation challenge,” said Dale McCauley, student engagement program manager. “It’s important to keep students engaged … we were particularly focused on the freshman experience.”
Colleges had to find ways of making the landing smooth for freshman trying to get a sense of the college experience. For upperclassmen, like those who graduated last week, faculty focused on making the online class experience as seamless and fulfilling as possible.
Higher education still has not returned to in-person instruction, a move that’s scheduled to happen in the fall. That means these graduates attended the last 18 months of courses and exams via virtual or socially distanced methods.
Despite administration efforts to make the curriculum engaging, students expressed sorrow and frustration at what the latter part of their college careers became.
“I finished my education and had no plans to go to grad school, but now it felt like something got taken away from me with in-person classes … it did feel like I was robbed,” said business management graduate Claire Gorman. “So, it felt like I needed to expand my education.”
Gorman plans to attend the master’s program for business administration at the University of Western England in Bristol. Not only did the academic slow-down cause her to rethink her academic trajectory, Gorman also said that the forced isolation of COVID hit her and her friends pretty hard.
“We were all so (expletive)-ing sad,” she said. “We all could have given up but we powered through.”
The in-person march, where the vast majority of graduates wore masks, was the first time many of them had seen their friends in months. It showed, because the students were giddy and goofy after a long year of cancelled in-person events led to this chance to interact with their classmates one last time.
One biochemistry graduate said she simply wanted everyone to know that, “Biochemistry is the sexiest major.”
Another graduate, of the College of Education, said that she didn’t realize how much she enjoyed studying with people in person until she couldn’t do it anymore.
“I loved studying in the library,” said Hannah Orcutt, who received an education degree in human development family sciences. “Just the atmosphere, you take it for granted. It’s a total community.”
Ellen White, who also graduated with a degree in education and worked as a student teacher for local third-graders, said that this in-person event was a nice change of pace.
“I’m very grateful for the fact we get to have an in-person thing after a year of distance learning,” she said. Of her time at OSU, she said it was nice to find her passion for teaching and called working with children the highlight of her time there.
“Student teaching in general … having the reassurance that what I’m doing is what I’m meant to do,” she said. “It’s been a crazy year but there have definitely been some highlights.”
One thing that numerous grads said they missed most was the football game day atmosphere at Reser. As they filed into the stadium, chants of “Let’s Go Beavers!” broke out and many could be heard saying how much they’d missed “these game day vibes.”
Once the marching classes had entered Reser it was time for the presentation of each class. While no diplomas were handed out, the deans of each school read off the total number of graduates and honors graduates who completed the requirements for their degrees. The students seated all around the stadium were challenged to outdo each other in making noise as each class was introduced.
Former OSU president and current President Emeritus Ed Ray gave an electrifying speech before the presentation of the classes. In it, he described how climate change, global inequality and other large-scale issues were all left for these graduates to tackle.
“Ahead of you are mountains to climb, bridges to cross and dragons to slay,” he said “We must, all of us, come together to literally save the world.”
To round things out and pump up the crowd, he gave the parting words, “Good luck, godspeed, and GO BEAVS!”
While several classes, representing thousands of graduates, were introduced in the stadium, one stood out in particular during this pandemic-era ceremony.
“Many of our graduates graduated early and are now on the front lines battling for the distribution of vaccines,” said College of Pharmacy Dean Dave Bearden. “And for that, I thank you.”
The entire stadium erupted in stomps and cheers, showing appreciation for those classmates who are already off making the world a better place.
As loud as it got then, it paled in comparison to when interim president Rebecca Johnson asked the gathered grads, “How great is it to come together and celebrate your achievement to graduate?” The roar showed just how anxious people were to get out of their dorm rooms, apartments and virtual study pods to finally do something physically to end their college careers.
During the presentation of classes, it started to drizzle and many scrambled to put on ponchos or jackets. But, of course, the fickle Oregon spring let up the moment everyone became ready for the rain. It sprinkled for less than two minutes.
The whole occasion was a precursor to Saturday's first virtual graduation ceremony in the university’s 153-year history. Everyone hoped it would be the last.
“It’s bittersweet,” said Orcutt, the future educator. “I’ve loved my experiences here but they were cut short. It’s a weird feeling for sure.”
Troy Shinn covers healthcare, natural resources and the Linn County government. He can be reached at 541-812-6114 or email@example.com. He can be found on Twitter at @troydshinn.