On the day of the commencement ceremony, a big moment for graduates is walking the stage to the tune of adoring loved ones and fellow classmates, shaking Fort Lewis College President Tom Stritkus’ hand and receiving the diploma, captured by the photo op.
Then, the turning of the tassel marks the ceremony complete. Unfortunately, this time-honored tradition was lost in the wake of an unprecedented pandemic.
Due to public health restrictions and safety precautions, COVID-19 forced FLC students off campus and online in March 2020. The 2020 spring and fall commencement ceremonies were also subject to these restrictions.
For the prior two ceremonies, to offer a personalized experience, the registrar’s office gave students the opportunity to submit videos and photos in lieu of walking the stage, Lindsay Nyquist, director of marketing and communication, said.
This was the college's sincere effort to make the ceremony as engaging as possible, Nyquist said. Considering the impersonal nature of 2020’s ceremonies, she expressed how virtual events don’t have the same sentimental potency, therefore hosting the ceremony in-person this semester was a priority for the registrar's office.
After a couple of semesters with in-person classes dependent on COVID-19, this semester’s ceremony will be held in-person giving students a proper graduation to validate their hard work. Albeit in a limited capacity, two guests is better than none.
“It’s a little more work behind the scenes, but we think it’s totally worth it,” Nyquist said. “We really want to give that opportunity to students, families and friends.”
There is also the option for students to submit a video to be recognized instead of being physically present. Guests without tickets can view the ceremony online on FLC’s Facebook page.
The ceremony is traditionally held inside Whalen Gymnasium, but this year it will be held outside on Ray Dennison Memorial Field to accommodate COVID-19 restrictions.
Like Durango’s springtime weather, COVID-19 is often unpredictable. Because of this, it is impossible to know what will happen too far in advance. However pertinent unforeseeable events are, a decision had to be made to give attendees a chance to make travel accommodations, Nyquist said.
Recognizing that public health stipulations were satisfied with the schools organization of this semesters’ convocation, the decision to recognize collegiate achievement in-person was finalized by FLC’s Registrar's Office, Nyquist said.
Due to public health regulations, San Juan Basin Health has issued a level yellow restriction for outdoor events. Level yellow allows 175 people, plus staff, to congregate for outdoor events.
Each student is allotted two tickets to give to guests. To ensure level yellow restrictions are maintained, ticketing will be heavily enforced, Nyquist said.
There is no way to stop students from giving unused tickets to other students, she said.
To host an in-person ceremony and adhere to social distancing requirements, the college chose to divide the ceremony into seven different smaller ceremonies with fewer than 60 graduates each. Up until this year, FLC has never had more than three ceremonies.
Having more ceremonies was done to adhere to social distancing guidelines, Nyquist said. Smaller gatherings free up space to arrange chairs and mark off bleachers six feet apart.
Double majors are assigned a ceremony, but if they would like to change their designation, they can do so by emailing Stritikus at firstname.lastname@example.org.
General admission will be practiced giving guests a chance to sit where they like.
If SJBH lifts restrictions from level yellow to level blue, more people can be permitted. In this scenario, each student would have the means to invite 1 ½ more guests, which expands the crowd size from 175 to 250. Level blue allows a 250 person max capacity for outdoor events in La Plata County.
“We’ll be continuing to release more information as we get more structures in place and know more about what our size limitations are going to be,” Nyquist said.
The day before The Independent went to press, FLC updated the school’s website allowing three guests instead of two. Students have yet to receive an announcement informing them of the update.
For Geology major and Geographic Informations Systems certificate receiver (GIS) Diego Schutz, completing his bachelor’s degree and receiving his diploma in the mail is more important than the ceremony.
Schutz is participating in a four week summer geology field camp hosted by FLC’s geology department which prevents him from going, but he is happy for those who plan to attend.
Unable to invite more than two guests, some students are disappointed because this doesn’t give them the chance to invite all of their loved ones to celebrate.
“I wish at least four guests were allowed to come,” psychology major Deseree Henderson said.
Without the financial help of her High School English teacher, Henderson said it would have been much more difficult to graduate, and it would mean a lot to be able to invite her along with her other two guests.
For other students, commencement is not only important to them, but also to their families and loved ones, so much so that the significance to some family members can be greater than to the students themselves.
According to Geology major Gregory Palese, participating in the ceremony is more important to his parents, but he’s happy to give them that experience. Unfortunately there are not enough tickets for everyone in his family to attend, so his older brother plans to watch him graduate via livestream from Denver.
“I’m really happy that the school has been working so hard to make this a semi-normal ceremony,” Palese said.
Compared to 2020, things are starting to open up and life is beginning to resume its normal character. However, we are still in a pandemic and safety should remain the number one priority until there is assurance that COVID-19 is no longer a concern, communication design major V. Barney said.
Barney said the safety of his family is of the utmost importance and he wouldn’t invite anybody who is not vaccinated to the ceremony, he said. Inviting vaccinated folks lessens the chance that students, guests or faculty get sick, he said.
“I think it is imperative to still have some type of restriction in place, or some type of policy because we’re not out of the pandemic,” Barney said.
Schutz, Palese, and Barney said their friends who graduated last year were disappointed that their commencement ceremonies were haplessly hosted on a virtual platform during the height of the lockdown.This semester graduating seniors express gratitude for the fact that their commencement will be in-person this semester.
“I get to wear a cap and gown, I get to participate in an actual graduation, versus you know, throwing my picture up on a wall somewhere or zooming it in,” graduating senior Barney said. “There’s going to actually be a performance of some sort.”
Caps off and congratulations to the graduating class of 2021. Stritikus leaves students with this statement sent to The Independent in an email from the Registrar’s Office:
“Being able to host graduation in person this year means we get to celebrate two significant and exciting accomplishments with our students—that they earned a degree from one of the best colleges in the nation and that they courageously persevered through a global pandemic,” said Stritikus. “Commencement represents so many important things to our students and their families and I can’t wait to congratulate them in person.”