Happy, even in the rain

On a rainy day, Claire Woodward, a senior and biochemistry and molecular biology major at Gettysburg College, makes her way down West Lincoln Avenue on the college campus. Woodward is one of several students anticipating a weekend online program to celebrate the Class of 2020. Commencement has been rescheduled for Saturday, Oct. 10.

Gettysburg College senior Aidan Wright is happy for the chance to reconnect with friends and professors one last time in a formal function, but nothing can beat a true commencement.

Gettysburg College will celebrate its graduating seniors with videos and virtual gatherings this weekend in a commemoration planned after the COVID-19 pandemic forced school closures March 16. An in-person, full-length commencement is scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 10.

“I’m glad something is happening, but I’m kind of underwhelmed,” Wright, a southern New Jersey resident and a history and German double major, said. “It just doesn’t compare with a real graduation and having your name read. There’s not much more the school could have done in the present moment.”

In hour-long sessions scheduled between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Saturday, students will visit with department heads and fellow scholars through the Zoom teleconferencing platform. On Sunday, at 11 a.m., Gettysburg College President Robert Iuliano will offer brief remarks and class President Callie Fucarino will make a statement, according to the Gettysburg College website. Names will not be read this weekend, an email from Gettysburg College communications staff clarified. Diplomas will arrive by mail in mid-June.

“I’m glad they’re doing something, even if it’s not a full ceremony,” said Claire Woodward, a biochemistry and molecular biology major and senior. “We still earned our degrees and still accomplished something very important. I’ll be at home with my family and it won’t be a big celebration, but I’ll get to celebrate what I’ve done and what I’ll get to do in the future. I’m glad they’re not letting it go by unnoticed.”

Katie Barako, Gettysburg College commencement coordinator, explained the decision to hold online gatherings while postponing the in-person commencement in an email to students in April. More than 80 percent of seniors surveyed responded. An “overwhelming majority” were in favor of an in-person commencement, she wrote.

“Traditions are difficult to preserve at this very non-traditional time, so this will not serve as a commencement,” Barako wrote. “We expect, however, that our virtual efforts will be a joyful and different type of celebration.”

On March 6, Gettysburg College seniors departed for spring break, not knowing they’d be graduates the next time they were able to greet their friends and fellow scholars in person. They learned through emails they would switch to an online model of education when classes resumed March 16.

Both Wright, who will begin a job as a college advisor in Huntington, Pa., and Woodward, who will begin working toward a doctorate in biochemistry and molecular biophysics after graduation, felt prepared for their futures. The online experience was adequate for education, Woodward said, though it wasn’t always as easy to engage.

“Part of why I love classes is talking to professors and students,” said Wright. “When you’re online, it’s just so different. It lacks the personal touch.”

Woodward agreed, though she appreciated her class sizes of 10 to 15 students, which likely made it easier to accommodate in comparison to classroom sizes of 200 or more at larger universities. She most regretted being unable to finish her undergraduate thesis, which required additional time in a laboratory that was no longer accessible.

Even so, she found the crisis to be a valuable learning tool in other ways.

“As students, we’ve had the opportunity to see a complete disaster unfold with essentially no warning,” she said. “In a liberal arts college, we watched an administration change gears immediately. They came up with a whole new game plan for how the college is run. To see the community come together to solve these problems makes a huge difference in how I may approach these situations.”

Experiences lost weighed as heavily as any missed educational opportunity on the students’ psyches.

On the first day at Gettysburg College, it’s a tradition for students to enter Pennsylvania Hall in one direction, Woodward said. On their last, they leave through the other side, symbolizing their passage through the academic frontier. Though they’ll have a chance to return to campus for pictures eventually, the ritual felt incomplete, she said.

Wright and a friend had attended karaoke night at a local bar several times, making a promise to each another that they’d one day take the stage.

“We always chickened out at the last minute,” he said. “When school got cancelled, we lost our chance. It’s the small stuff like that.”

The week before graduation, commonly known as senior week, is often a last opportunity to etch memories with college friends. Wright had hoped to be on a warm beach somewhere. Woodward planned to head further north.

“Right at this moment, in a parallel universe, I would be with my best friend touring Boston right now,” she said.

On Friday, Oct. 9, graduates are invited to return for a Senior Class Party. A baccalaureate service will be held Saturday, Oct. 10 and a commencement ceremony that includes Spring Honors Day Award recipient recognition, will follow. If there is need to postpone further, the decision will be made by Sept. 1, Barako wrote.

Wright said he looks forward to returning in October. As the threat of the novel coronavirus lingers, he’s learned to temper his expectations, he said. Though he’s grateful for the chance to celebrate with friends in person, he knows there will be absentees.

“Two of my friends are attending grad school in England,” he said. “They just keep saying, ‘I can’t do this. I can’t afford this. I can’t justify coming back for a weekend.’ It’s tough knowing the friends who you’ve been doing this with for four years won’t be there with you.”

When he thinks about those younger than him, such as his sister who just finished her freshman semester at Bucknell, he remembers to be grateful.

“It’s easy to focus on the fact that we lost the last two-and-a-half months of our college career,” he said. “But we got three and a half years pandemic-free. I’m worried my sister’s experience will be affected more than mine. Things might be different for two or three years. We can’t be sure. On some level, I’m glad we got the experience we did.”

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