The Seniors are Celebrating, COVID be Damned

UPDATE: More information on the University’s policies at the time of these events, specifically concerning gatherings, has been included in the article.

As the class of 2020 faces the unprecedented cancellation of their commencement ceremonies at universities in California and across the U.S. due to the COVID-19 pandemic, University of Redlands seniors have expressed that they feel robbed of a sense of closure. “My academic career seems to have vanished into thin air,” senior Chandler Anderson wrote to the Bulldog.

Yet, some have refused to let the virus stop them from participating in the traditions and festivities of commencement at the U of R. A handful of seniors and faculty have taken the celebration into their own hands.

On Monday, Mar. 16, all on-campus students received an email ordering that they move off campus and their dorms be closed by the end of the week for their safety. At the time, the University was already transitioning to online classes, and enforcing policies based on CDC guidelines by cancelling gatherings of 50 or more people. But, before leaving campus for the last time as students, dozens of seniors convened at the Greek Theater, the traditional site of commencement, to host their own ceremonies with friends and fellow Bulldogs.

One such event was so raucous that it drew the attention of professors in nearby Hall of Letters, who began milling about the stands of the theater to see what the commotion was about. A group of students from Outdoor Programs (OP), an organization that leads students on hiking and camping trips around Southern California, were practicing their time-honored tradition of clanging pots and pans together each time a senior trip leader crossed the stage.

The make-shift ceremony was complete with social distancing of at least six feet between students adorned in full caps and gowns as they walked across the stage, called by Director of Recreation and long-time OP trip leader Andrew Hollis. The idea was proposed by junior Mattea Pulido before the official graduation ceremony was cancelled. Pulido, a “badass and super involved” trip leader according to one of her senior peers, felt it was obvious such an event should happen, and she took it upon herself to make it a reality.

“It seemed like a given that if the school wasn’t going to put on a formal ceremony, I wanted to make sure the seniors in OP got the recognition they deserved before they left campus for good,” Pulido said in an email. “Plus, OP has this tradition of banging pots and pans whenever a trip leader walks across the stage during graduation and it’s a pretty big deal for people … I think it’s something our trip leaders look forward to on graduation day, that and donning our homemade prayer flags.”

These small, ragged, Buddhist-inspired prayer flags are created by individuals who participate in OP trips, meant to represent the person in any way they choose. The flags are then strung up on a thread and adorn the ceiling of Outdoor Programs headquarters. Graduating trip leaders wear their flags to commencement, with notes from fellow trip leaders whom they shared memories with. One senior trip leader, Margaret Eronimous, explained the value of OP traditions like these in an email.

“The prayer flags remind me of the strength of the community and are a reminder of the wonderful humans I’ve had the joy of getting to know,” Eronimous said. “The pots and pans are raucous and loud and such an unbounded celebration I’ve come to love about our program.”   Eronimous considers these traditions the only reason she looks forward to the commencement ceremony itself, but because she got to take part in them, their small celebration “felt real” to her—“like the best parts of commencement all in one.”     That same week, a number of other student groups held similar events in the Greek Theater. The seniors of Residence Life and Housing (RLH) were also honored in a make-shift graduation. Dean of Student Affairs, Donna Eddleman, and Director of Residence Life and Housing, Cassandra Morton, were present as well as all Resident Directors and a few Community Assistants.

Graduating seniors Ava Klein, Drew Garbe, Anthony Guiteirrez, Devan Steele, Anna Duvall, and Kavya Mason all walked across the theater stage and received a blue cord from Cassandra Morton to commemorate their time in RLH.

Other students who were not associated with a campus organization celebrated by popping champagne and laughing on the stage of the theater with friends, like first-generation senior Chandler Anderson. Angered at the cancellation of an official commencement ceremony, she took it on herself to celebrate.

“I love my friends and I have had the pleasure of watching them grow into the accomplished people they are today,” Anderson said in an email. “I wanted us to have the opportunity to reminisce on our wonderful and wild years here together and acknowledge our achievements.”

Like many, Anderson lamented a lack of closure for her time at the University of Redlands. And yet, she was determined to make the ending of her college career memorable.

“When you thought you had more time with your favorite people in the world, and that gets taken from you, it’s hard to feel closure,” Anderson said. “My academic career seems to have vanished into thin air. In times like these, however, closure is not really accessible. Graduating with my friends, on our own terms, was meaningful in its own way. Despite these circumstances, I wouldn’t change those memories for the world.”  

From left to right: Jeong Kim, Alex Raya, Danielle Basset, Dawit Akilu, Chandler Anderson, Anthony Pulford, Kelsey Barna, Sarah Taquet.

Student-organized celebrations like Pulido and Anderson’s have been accompanied by acts of solidarity from staff and faculty at the University. The Johnston Center for Integrative Studies are streaming graduation ceremonies for individual seniors, according to their Instagram page. Professor Heather King of the University’s English department explained their developing plans to honor English majors in an email, and expressed how unfortunate the circumstances are.

“All of us in the department are crushed not to get to tell students and advisees goodbye, how much we learned from them, how proud of them we are, and how much we’ll miss them,” King said. “I really want to make sure that the class of 2020 gets their Harry Potter faculty fix.”   King often jokes that the regalia students and faculty wear to commencement makes them resemble extras from the popular book and film franchise.

“Initially I thought we’d be able to have an event in which faculty were physically on campus (in full regalia, of course!), and we projected seniors’ pictures while we read their names,” King said. “Now that things are even more restricted, I’m hoping maybe we can manage something like videoing faculty via Teams, recording it, and sending seniors the link.”

Others have helped the abrupt ending for seniors feel more complete in other ways, like photographer Coco McKown, who took it upon herself to offer the U of R’s class of 2020 graduation photoshoots with their live mascot, Addie the bulldog.

“I came up with the idea around March 12,” McKown said in an email. “I had just found out that all classes were going to go online starting March 23rd and realized a lot of students were probably going to move out of the dorms. Mary Littlejohn (Addie’s handler) was up for bringing Addie along to be in pictures.”

McKown offered her services free of charge to seniors, and said that she was not hired by the University for the shoots. “I just wanted to cheer up the students,” she said.   As a freelancer who began working for the University five years ago, McKown expressed that she felt a connection to the class of 2020, whom she watched and documented as they grew since the start of their college career. Contributing her skills one last time to the graduating class was one gesture with which she could show solidarity.

“I feel very close to the class of 2020,” McKown said. “I’ve gotten to see them grow from freshmen to seniors and [I] wish them all the best in the future.  They are strong, resilient, flexible, and creative and I know that will serve them well in this new world we’re living in.”

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Photographs and video contributed by Mattea Pulido, Margaret Eronimous, and Chandler Anderson. Header image, from left to right: Rachel Wilkin, Maggie Eronimous, Mara Sherline, Paige Koenig, Emma Konugres, Kelly Bradshaw.


2 thoughts on “The Seniors are Celebrating, COVID be Damned

  1. I love that faculty and staff helped put together some of these mini celebrations, it shows how much this whole situation is not just affecting the students but how much everybody is being deeply affected.

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