A year of circumstance ends in celebrationMarch 08, 2021 - Rachel Gaddis
Only days after typically bitter December weather, 213 Ouachita graduates donned their gowns, mortar boards and stoles, as well as face masks, and walked under a beautiful cloudless blue sky on Benson-Williams Field at Cliff Harris Stadium to receive their diplomas. The warm western sun cast deep green shadows on the turf behind their physically-distanced white chairs. Other graduates watched their long-awaited graduation ceremony from home.
Saturday, Dec. 5, marked nearly seven months since the class of 2020’s original May commencement date, which was canceled due to COVID-19 last spring. It also was the first time many in the class had stepped foot onto campus since students were sent home in March when the university shifted to remote learning to finish the semester and prevent the spread of the virus.
The ceremony, which honored August and December 2019 graduates as well as May and August 2020 graduates, was unlike any before. The crowd was unusually quiet, honoring the grads’ accomplishments as well as the struggles of the preceding months.
Even in a new venue, at an unusual time of year and with precautions limiting interactions according to Arkansas Department of Health guidelines, much about Ouachita’s traditional ceremony to honor its graduates remained the same. Graduates walked past and exchanged nods with their professors and mentors, who stood on the sideline of the home stands, as they proceeded to their seats. Family members, friends, faculty and staff stood at the mention of their students’ and peers’ names being called from the podium.
In his commencement address, President Ben Sells praised the class’ “resilience to finish in the face of adversity.”
“Lisa and I arrived at Ouachita in 2016 like many of you. We feel a special kinship with you because we began our Ouachita journey together,” said Dr. Sells. “That kinship, however, isn’t based just on the years we’ve spent together but on what we’ve lived through together – a pandemic of great enduring consequence.
“The intersection of your college years and COVID-19 make it very possible that this crisis will have a profound impact on your life and set your generation apart from all others,” Sells added.
With emotion in his voice, Sells recalled telling them goodbye in March 2020, before what everyone had hoped would be an extended, two-week spring break as the pandemic hit the U.S.
“I remember seniors departing from campus for the last time, some in tears, and some gathering for prayer in Berry Chapel,” Sells said. “I remember how you prayed for me.
“Crises and adversity reveal character, and experiences may also illuminate a truth – truth that changes our heart, our habits and our hopes for our future – truth that also forges character,” he continued.
Sells then charged the class with advice given to him by a mentor, a mentor who had been given the same advice 50 years prior: “If you can’t see very far ahead, go ahead as far as you can see.”
Referencing Psalm 46:1, Proverbs 20:18 and Jeremiah 29:11, Sells shared his gratitude for the comfort found in Scripture as well as the community and commitment of Ouachita’s faculty, staff, trustees and friends.
“Ouachitonians, in this, our final gathering, may I suggest that it’s well worth your time to ask, ‘How then shall we live, both in the shadow of a pandemic and in the light of eternity?’” he said. “And, to consider what truths have been illuminated for you, and how your character is being formed for good.
“Every graduating class deserves heartfelt congratulations,” Sells said as he closed. “But this year, we feel it deeper when we say to you, ‘Congratulations; well done!’”
Following the ceremony, graduates mingled in small groups across the football field. Cori Gooseberry, a May 2020 engineering physics graduate, celebrated with his brother, Justin, a 2019 grad. The twins, both from Little Rock, Ark., studied the same major and played right and left tackle for Tiger football. But graduating only a year apart, the two had drastically different senior years.
“With this year, how tough it’s been with COVID-19 and getting adjusted with new things, I guess for me it just means the closing of one door and opening of another,” Cori said. “It wasn’t what we expected toward the end, but as the year has continued to go on, we’ve just started on new pathways.”
“And we’ve been preparing for this moment our whole life,” Justin chimed in.
For another Ouachita athlete, Tiger softball pitcher Faith Melton, graduation day was long-awaited, and needed, for even the smallest feeling of closure. Like other Ouachita athletics teams, Tiger softball’s season ended abruptly in March.
“Even though it was six months later, I’m just glad we finally got the recognition and could come together for the last time,” said Faith, a May 2020 kinesiology and leisure studies/pre-professional studies graduate from Maumelle, Ark. “One thing about Ouachita is that I think I’ll always keep in touch with my professors and friends.”
Photo by Hannah Smith
Photo by Abby Blankenship
Newlyweds Dylan and Brooke (Sanderford) Bester echoed Melton, with Dylan saying that Commencement “felt more like a family reunion.”
“The ceremony’s nice, because it feels official, but I think what was really special was the graduation brunch and getting to catch up with people we hadn’t seen and to be together for the first time since March,” said Brooke, a May 2020 communication sciences & disorders and Spanish graduate from Stephenville, Texas.
“We had our own disappointments with COVID,” said Dylan, a December 2019 business administration/entrepreneurship graduate from Johannesburg, South Africa. “Our wedding fell through, and my family had planned to come to graduation in May, and they couldn’t be here today.
“But, the thing is, you make friendships at Ouachita that feel like family,” he added.
For other graduates and their families who did not attend Commencement in person, the livestreamed video of the ceremony offered an alternative way to celebrate. Dillon Luterek, a May 2020 biology graduate from Georgetown, Texas, is the first in his family to graduate from college. Although his family could not attend due to scheduling conflicts, Dillon decided it was worth it to walk to reunite with friends and professors.
“Once I was finally there and saw everyone again, I felt a sense of pride that I finally was able to walk, and I know my family felt the same way,” he said. “I know watching via livestream is not the same as in person, but just watching me walk is what made them happy.”
Abby Leal, a May 2020 communications & media/strategic communications and graphic design graduate from Hot Springs, Ark., and her family watched the ceremony online out of continued caution concerning COVID-19.
“Watching the ceremony online can’t compare to being there surrounded by your classmates, but I did appreciate being able to see my friends walk across the stage and hear my name called,” she said.
Commencement 2020 was different than any before it but also very much like every Commencement before it – bittersweet. For generations of graduates who have loved Ouachita, Commencement has been the inevitable closing of one chapter in life and the excitement of beginning another.
Lead photo by Abby Blankenship