Commencement becomes reunion for class of 2020
By Mike Kilen and Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau
They left each other on March 15, 2020, just weeks short of graduation and won’t easily forget that day.
COVID-19 was just beginning its spread across the world and students were asked to complete the semester online. Seniors hastily put together an impromptu walk down Lopes Way wearing graduation gowns as a sudden rain poured down. Graduation was postponed. The world moved on, warily.
But Tuesday was finally their day at Grand Canyon University. Thirteen months after that rainy afternoon, they could bring closure to their college days with an in-person Commencement at GCU Arena.
The class of 2019-20 traveled to GCU from all over the country. They took vacation days at jobs they’d already started – many of the 619 who returned to GCU for the Commencement ceremony have started their careers.
Aubrey Grasz returned after a year of working as the Associate Director of Presidential Correspondence Analysis, then in the Washington, D.C., office of Nebraska Sen. Deb Fischer.
Setting foot back on campus for Tuesday’s 2020 graduation ceremony made her feel as though she never left.
“I feel like the past year did go by really fast in a lot of ways, so it’s hard to believe it’s been a whole year,” the Communications graduate said. “It kind of feels like coming back home. I’m excited to be back on campus and to see old classmates and friends.”
Her parents, Steve and Verlyne, flew in from Nebraska to cheer on their graduate.
“I think it’s just really great that GCU is offering this for the graduates that didn’t get to have a ceremony,” Verlyne said. “We’re really appreciative, thankful and grateful that they offered it.”
Kayla Morales and friend Isabella Carrilho also happily took a vacation day from work to come back on campus to graduate.
“It is really special they are doing this for us,” Morales said.
Both are business graduates who work at Charles Schwab and are also thankful for the University’s partnership with the firm, a partnership they say helped them land a job.
Graduates stood outside the Arena and hugged people they had not seen in a year. It was a commencement and a one-year class reunion, all rolled into one.
Ariana Knox traveled from Virginia to see former roommate Roxanne Segura and to celebrate a big accomplishment.
“I suffered for four years, I worked hard, now I can walk across that stage one last time — and see my friends,” said Knox, a graphic design graduate.
She hadn’t seen Segura since last March, when they got the message that the last weeks of their college life would be online because of the pandemic.
“It’s interesting see all the people I knew and how they changed,” Knox said, nodding to Segura. “She got a haircut.”
Theatre graduates McKenna Kollman and Christina McSheffrey were “flooded with memories” as they looked around the campus, now as graduates.
“It felt like it was the distant past, but I was also excited to be back … it was like whiplash almost,” Kollman said. “I just feel blessed that I do get the opportunity, and it’s also nice for my parents because they get to see that I did it and for family to see that it was all worth it in the end.”
Since graduating last spring, Kollman and McSheffrey have put their degrees to work — Kollman as a voice and piano teacher and McSheffrey working on plays and auditions.
“I feel like I’ve had to have a different mindset for the last year, just kind of a working mindset and a future-oriented mindset, so it’s nice to pause and just celebrate,” McSheffrey said.
The shared memory of March 15, 2020, was part the afternoon ceremony. A video tribute to their experiences at GCU featured photographs of that Lopes Way walk.
“A storm rolled in, foreshadowing our lives ahead,” Sam Yonan, student body president in 2019-2020, told the Arena crowd.
But the word that kept coming back to him was humility. The past year taught this class to appreciate what is often taken for granted, he said.
“I appreciate the University did not forget the class of 2020.”
The graduates haven’t forgotten each other.
“When we left campus, everything was so rushed – and then COVID, so it was nice to reunite with friends and get to say a final goodbye to GCU,” said Danyelle Horton, one of three graduates of the nursing program who huddled together outside the entrance.
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” added Xean Tapangan.
Tapangan, Horton and Joelle Tamura all were quickly thrust into jobs at nearby medical facilities last spring to deal with the COVID crisis.
“It was stressful. We had full patient loads, and they were really sick,” Tamura said. “But it was nice that we got to help out COVID patients during the height of the pandemic.”
University leaders thanked the graduates for their patience, their graciousness for returning and for all they have done since leaving the University, bringing GCU’s core values of servant leadership into the world.
“I wanted to have a sense of having closed everything up. I feel like I can move on,” said Cooper Floto, who spent the past year as a ski instructor in Breckenridge, Colorado. “It’s kind of strange seeing people I haven’t seen for a year but at the same time very rewarding.”
It was odd for this class; they were reminiscing even while graduating.
“It’s good to see everyone that I forgot about, honestly,” said Floto’s friend, Ethan Collins. “Seeing a lot of people brings up a lot of memories of school and friend groups and different years and different people along the way. I just saw someone I sat next to in my first class. Now I can walk with them.”
And Tuesday they finally walked — right into the future.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.
Contact GCU staff writer Ashlee Larrison at [email protected] or at 602-639-8488.
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