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Graduating During the Pandemic: How Church Schools Are Honoring Graduates Despite COVID-19 Restrictions

This story appears here courtesy of TheChurchNews.com. It is not for use by other media.

By Rachel Sterzer Gibson, Church News

When she pictured graduating from college, Kaylee Esplin anticipated several iconic moments: donning the long black gown with her cap and tassel, having her name called to the applause of her friends and family, walking across the stage to receive her diploma, and throwing her cap in the air alongside her cohort of graduates.

Esplin’s experience, however, will be much different. Instead, the Brigham Young University (BYU) graduate majoring in communications is planning to watch the virtual commencement ceremony on April 23 from the apartment of her brother, who is also graduating.

Esplin is one of thousands of students whose last year of education — including graduation — has been punctuated by COVID-19 restrictions and health guidelines.

It’s a little tough to feel the significance of the occasion without the pomp and circumstance of a traditional convocation, Esplin said.

“There’s something about the image of putting on your cap and gown and walking through the Marriott Center for the last time,” she said.

Esplin appreciates the efforts of the university and her professors and mentors to acknowledge her achievement. “It’s nice to have them kind of help me remember that it’s a big accomplishment.” It also helps to give her a sense of closure, she said.

BYU student Beth O’Brien will receive her master’s degree in social work on April 23, 2021. Photo courtesy of BYU and Church News.All rights reserved.

Like Ensign College, BYU–Idaho and BYU–Hawaii, BYU has been working to help celebrate and honor its graduates in new, mostly virtual, ways.

Brett Sampson, BYU–Idaho’s public affairs director, said the entire campus has worked to “do what we can” within the established health parameters to provide a sense of normalcy to graduates.

“We want the graduates … to feel a sense of their great accomplishments and know how proud we are to have them as alumni,” Sampson said.

And students and their families have been patient through the process, he noted.

Kaitlyn Carlson, who graduated in communications from BYU–Idaho on April 8, said the university did everything possible under the circumstances to make graduates feel connected, despite there not being a large event on campus.

All the graduating seniors submitted a photo and, in an online convocation through her department, were recognized in a slideshow.

The university also sent emails offering congratulations to each graduate and, through social media, invited them to share and reflect on their time at the university.

“It felt good to be acknowledged,” said Carlson, whose last year was entirely online. “Especially with not physically being on campus, I still felt connected to the university.”

Alailima Archie George Key, from New Zealand, graduated from BYU–Hawaii on April 17, 2021. Photo by Monique Saenz, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

Ensign College and BYU–Hawaii also created a PowerPoint presentation of all the graduates’ names and photos, which was shown after the commencement addresses. Ensign College, which had 438 graduates during its winter commencement on April 9, also mailed a cap and tassel to each graduate and hosted a live Graduate Celebration over Zoom.

BYU, which is awarding about 6,200 degrees during its commencement ceremony on April 23, is trying to keep the online ceremony as close to regular as possible — but without filling the 19,000-seat Marriott Center. Photos of the graduating students will be displayed on a big screen behind the speaker. Each college department will provide its own virtual convocation.

Sampson said although fewer people participate in the virtual commencements and convocations than in-person ceremonies, those who really want to have a celebratory experience are taking advantage of it.

Over the last year he’s seen graduates in their caps and gowns taking photos in front of university signs and other campus landmarks, just as they would during a pre-COVID-19 semester.

One couple flew in from the East Coast to dress up and take their graduating daughter out for a nice dinner. Then they all sat together to watch the online commencement.

“They wanted their daughter to feel their support and some sense of gathering,” Sampson said. “It wasn’t what any of them expected when she started her college education, but her feelings of achievement and having her parents here in Rexburg are what mattered most to her.”

Although Lucas Gomes de Araujo was disappointed not to have his “honor walk” moment, as a speaker during the online commencement ceremony for Ensign College, he was relieved not to be staring down at hundreds of faces. “I actually liked that I was only talking to the camera,” he said with a laugh.

Another silver lining for the native Brazilian was that the virtual forums allowed his family in Brasília to watch and feel part of his accomplishment.

Terrence A. Dela Peña, a BYU–Hawaii graduate from Antipolo, Philippines, majoring in political science, and his wife, Ana Katrina Fugaban-Dela Peña, who graduated in social work, expressed similar sentiments.

BYU–Hawaii graduates Terrence A. Dela Peña; his wife, Ana Katrina; and their sons pose for a photo prior to participating in the commencement ceremony, broadcast on Saturday, April 17, 2021. Photo by Joshua Sanchez, courtesy of Church News.All rights reserved.

While the BYU–Hawaii online commencement took place on Saturday, April 17, at 9:30 a.m., the Dela Peñas’ families tuned in to watch, despite it being 3:30 a.m. in the Philippines.

Terrence, who represented his graduating class as the student speaker during commencement, said their families were so excited for them and missed them so much, they were willing to get up early to show their support.

There are definitely pluses and minuses involved in graduating during a pandemic, said Beth O’Brien, who will be graduating with her master’s degree in social work from BYU. But she primarily feels gratitude.

O’Brien knows of many other social work programs that were shut down or had delayed openings during the pandemic, but her BYU program ensured she was able to complete her internships.

“Our field team went above and beyond in securing us continued opportunities to be able to be out in the field, getting the hands-on experience, even in the pandemic,” O’Brien said. “I feel really grateful.”

Sampson said one collective outcome of the pandemic is the sense that “we’re all in this together.” While there is some disappointment that certain milestones aren’t happening the way people expected, he said, there is also an overwhelming sense of gratitude that graduates were able to achieve their educational goals.

When Terrence and his wife first flew to Oahu to attend BYU–Hawaii, his oldest son, Reese, was 5 months old. During their time in Laie, he and his wife were full-time students, he worked part time and they added another son, Kyle, to their family.

Twenty years from now, Terrence said he’s going to remember less about the commencement ceremony and more about how those years at BYU–Hawaii provided them with an education and memories of raising their little family. “I feel like we built our foundation as a family while we were here at BYU–Hawaii. We’re hoping that we keep on building on that as we move forward from the campus,” he said.

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