Commencement Day at Western
The air was crisp and the skies were blue. Soon-to-be-graduates lined the track of the Mountaineer Bowl on the campus of Western Colorado University energetically chatting among themselves, anticipating commencement.
Administrators and professors wove in and out of the lines, checking the pronunciation of names, and joking with the participants. Colorful mortarboards displayed light-hearted messages, such as “nevertheless she persisted, this one’s for you, gramma,” as tassels waved in the breeze. Receiving a diploma was only moments away.
The Perseverance of 2021 Graduates
Western paid tribute to the perseverance of its graduates by holding in-person commencement ceremonies on Saturday, May 8. The moments before, during and after the ceremony were alive with excitement as the celebration capped off a year-long dance managing the COVID-19 pandemic.
About 450 undergraduate and graduate students crossed the stage, one by one, as another 900 friends and family members watched the proceedings. On the hill behind the stadium, more watched with expectation and hope.
A Year of Change and Uncertainty
For Catherine Barisas, about to receive her Bachelor of Arts degree, the celebration was the pinnacle of a year fraught with change and uncertainty.
“It was a super-hard year. I was falling behind and then I said to myself ‘I’ve got to get my act together,’ and I started making more art,” said Barisas. She then turned her thoughts to commencement and the finish line. “To be with my friends, and to be able to accomplish all this together while together—commencement is nice rather than just going home and getting a piece of paper.”
Planning for the Event
Commencement Day was weeks in planning, in collaboration with Gunnison County Health and Human Services. Part of the success of the event was due to a year of health management practices that kept COVID-19 case count low as the year progressed into spring. Health screening, random testing, quarantining and, eventually, student vaccinations helped campus navigate the January start to the spring semester, and a week-long spring break in March. Testing showed throughout the spring semester a positivity rate of about 2%. A low test-positivity rate is an indicator that community mitigation measures are working to prevent virus transmission.
The graduates and their guests—capped at two per student due to COVID-19 regulations—enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of the day. Vice President of Academic Affairs Bill Niemi told the gathering to soak in the tradition of more than 100 years of Commencements, and challenged the graduates to consider how to move forward, heal, and celebrate life in a new world.
“You’ve had the gift of a wonderful education; now, please use that gift to be the leaders in defining your community moving forward,” Niemi said. “Use the skills of your liberal arts and professional education to solve human and technical problems, reduce suffering, increase human dignity and justice, and expand the human spirit wherever you touch.”
Going Forward with Courage
English and Political Science graduate Emily Eads shared an emotional message that touched upon experiences common among the graduates—all-nighters, enduring winter, gaining momentum as a Mountaineer, and facing the future.
“There remains a likely possibility that we will all experience apprehension and doubt as the coming years unfold,” Eads said. “I encourage all of you to embrace these emotions with grace, and, ironically, not to be afraid of the fear itself. Go forward with the same courage that we have used to brave subzero temperatures, scale mountains, shuffle through icy parking lots, drive over Monarch pass during winter storms….”
A New Beginning
Commencement speaker and entrepreneur Ron Wright, ’00, told graduates that there are only two outcomes to every risk taken in life: one either wins, or learns.
The ceremony ending with the traditional tossing of caps in familiar form. Graduates reunited with their guest before heading to department receptions.
For the newly minted alumni such as Barisas, commencement is more than a new chapter for graduates. It’s symbolic of a new beginning for those who have weathered a historic event—a pandemic.
“Commencement is a whole experience,” she said. “We made it together.”
To watch all of the speeches, graduates and special moments, see the Western commencement ceremony video.
Author Credit: Chris Rourke
Photo Credit: Katie Lyons & Mason Schultz