By Tessa Castor
Staff reporter

The class of 2020 will not have a “normal” graduation, thanks to COVID-19. When they left for spring break in early March, graduates didn’t know they were leaving many of their friends, professors and peers for the last time.

Southwestern announced April 3 that, due to state and federal guidelines, commencement exercises for the class of 2020 were postponed.

On April 17, the institution released the exercises will instead take place the weekend of August 22-23, the same week the school will celebrate the annual Moundbuilding Ceremony.

The decision to move to August was influenced by a survey sent by the institution to seniors and graduate students.

The survey asked respondents their preferences between the following –

  • Virtual commencement ceremony/conferral of degrees in May
  • Commencement Ceremony postponed to late summer 2020
  • Commencement Ceremony in August, possibly as part of Moundbuilding/Opening Convocation Festivities
  • Commencement Ceremony held during Homecoming Weekend in October
  • A combined Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 Commencement Ceremony to be held on May 9, 2021.

Most respondents requested either a late summer or August commencement. The final decision was determined by the commencement planning team.

Kaydee Riggs-Johnson, vice president for marketing and communications, said, “We had great participation in the survey. It was pretty clear the majority of students wanted an in-person commencement as soon as possible.”

“We knew we needed an in-person commencement,” said Riggs-Johnson. “We’re such a relational institution.”

Nearly 20 percent of the survey respondents expressed a preference for the May 10 virtual ceremony. Riggs-Johnson said she believes graduates submitted these responses out of a desire for closure.

To provide students this closure, the school will host a virtual conferral of degrees on the original commencement date, May 10, at 2:30 p.m. Students from the class of 2020 also have the option to return for spring commencement exercises in May 2021.

An email sent to graduating students by the institution said, “The celebratory ceremony will mark the completion of academic programs for our senior and graduate students. While this ceremony is not meant to replace our in-person commencement proceedings it is aimed at marking and celebrating the accomplishments of our graduates.”

According to the email, the ceremony will include a conferral of degrees by Brad Andrews, president, and remarks from Ross Peterson-Veatch, academic dean. It will also include a brief address from Sandra Gasca-Gonzalez, alumna and member of the college’s board of trustees.

Diplomas will be mailed to graduates following the virtual conferral.

Riggs-Johnson said Friday, “We want to make the class feel accomplished and that they have been honored, as well as a sense of closure. They didn’t leave for spring break thinking they wouldn’t come back. It doesn’t feel like commencement should be taken away from graduates.”

She said the school acknowledges the need for safety amid the pandemic, so these plans may change depending on health concerns come August.

In the email announcing commencement plans, the college said, “We are hopeful that we will be able to hold our typical graduate hooding ceremony and commencement ceremony where the class of 2020 can gather and be recognized in Jantz Stadium, as we normally do. As new public health information emerges and as decisions are made, we will communicate with graduates and their families. We are working to balance our strong desire to celebrate the accomplishments of our graduates while taking the necessary health safety precautions.”

Aside from the date change, the school hopes commencement will look just like those previously held in May. If there are health restrictions in August due to COVID-19, Riggs-Johnson said the school may host smaller ceremonies over the August 22-23 weekend.

“We’re making our plans with the best information we have,” said Riggs-Johnson. “We don’t know how things will be in August. I hope the class of 2020 feels we’re doing right by them. We are so proud of them and we are going to do all we can to celebrate together as Builders.”

Abby Bertholf, biochemistry senior, lost her final golf season to COVID-19. Since moving to remote learning, she said she struggles with boredom.

“I miss going to class and seeing my peers,” said Bertholf. “I’m trying to find ways to occupy myself. It’s crazy how many times I’ve heard the word ‘unprecedented’ during this pandemic. No one knows what to do, and no one’s on the same page. I’ll feel better when there’s a vaccine or antibody test.”

Bertholf will begin medical school at Kansas University in Kansas City in July. She said she hopes she will be able to return for Southwestern’s in-person commencement.

“I hope graduation looks similar to how it did when I was a junior marshal,” said Bertholf.

D’Morea Horton, physical education senior, accepted a position to teach physical education at Arkansas City Middle School, so he plans to attend Southwestern’s commencement exercises in August.

“My biggest hope is that the only thing that’s different about graduation is the date,” said Horton. “No matter what time of year it is, we should get to feel like we accomplished something not a lot of people get to.”

Horton said he will remember the pandemic well after it is over.

“Coronavirus cut my senior year short,” said Horton. “I’m missing out on my time at SC. But, I still get to cross the finish line. I’m not too disappointed.”

Riggs-Johnson said, “Commencement is such an important event in our campus community. We have to have it. It’s not only closure for students. It’s closure for staff, faculty and coaches. In a time when so much has been lost, we all need it.”

Tessa Castor reported on this story from her home in Clearwater, Kansas.