Graduation During COVID: Reflections about the Rewarding Ceremony that Never Happened

Milestones and Milestone Memories Among COVID Victims

by BLAKE PIESCHKE, CSU Public Relations Intern

Last year’s Spring 2020 graduates missed out on the opportunity to walk for graduation due to COVID-19. They held hopes they would have a chance to return to campus to participate in a future commencement exercise. Unfortunately, due to the continuing threat of COVID-19, they were not able to fulfill their hopes and dreams of experiencing the memorable graduation ceremony.

After the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the campus in mid-March, Minnesota State Mankato joined colleges and universities which accepted the certainty that a safe Spring 2020 commencement would not be a reality. With only weeks to make a back-up plan to recognize the achievements of the Class of 2020, the University created a series of congratulatory videos and spotlight videos of students representing the six colleges.

Spring 2021 graduates and their families line up outside the Centennial Student Union Ballroom to participate in the family photo opportunity.

A commencement-in-a-box gift was prepared for each graduating student that included a diplomat portfolio, letter from the president and University memorabilia. While the cost for the alternate commencement effort matched the cost of an actual commencement, the University shared the graduates disappointment.

“We’re disappointed that we’re not able to hold commencement ceremonies this spring,” said President Richard Davenport. “Commencement ceremonies are a tradition that can’t be replaced. But it is our hope that the special gift boxes, videos and website we have put together will show our graduates how special they are, and that we are thinking of them on this momentous day in their lives.”

Realizing early in 2021 that COVID would keep from planning and conducting a Spring Commencement, the University planned a photo opportunity that seeks to recreate the commencement event. Families were invited to join the experience. Nearly 440 graduates in the cap and gown were joined by family members to participate in the three-day event May 3-5.

But for last year’s graduates, the disappointment of the pomp and circumstance of commencement lingers.

Carlos Vera

Carlos Vera was a student who came to Minnesota State University pursuing a major in international relations and a minor in international business. The Austin, Minn., native was set to go through the Spring 2020 commencement but was let down when the ceremony was canceled due to COVID.

Those around Vera over the past year said a belated chance to “walk” at commencement always brought excitement and a smile to his face. After hearing that Fall 2020 ceremony was also canceled, he was disappointed. But still he hoped he would be able to come back and experience it with the upcoming Spring 2021 graduates. But as COVID lingered, that dream fell apart.

“It honestly is super disappointing that we work so hard for that moment you get to share with your family and friends that are there to help you celebrate for all that hard work. I feel robbed of the experience, not only from COVID, but from the school.” Vera said. “I definitely feel a void and can never tell my friends, family and my future kids about my graduation experience.”

Travis Gerlach

Just like Vera, Travis Gerlach was a graduate of the spring of 2020 who missed out on the opportunity to walk. Gerlach ventured from Rosemount, Minn., to pursue a major in mass media and a minor in marketing here at Minnesota State Mankato.

Gerlach had spent years playing a major role with the Phi Delta Fraternity. From long hours of studying, countless hours of working and organizing events with the fraternity, a graduation ceremony was definitely a fitting reward for his efforts.

“I definitely feel a piece is missing from my college experience. All that hard work and money spent just to be told I can’t walk,’ Gerlach said. “I understand there is COVID, but many high schools and other colleges were able to find ways to honor their students in meaningful ways. All they did was send us a pop socket and I eventually moved on and accepted the fact that I will never walk.”

Not only was it going to be a memorable moment for him, but also a memorable moment for his parents.

“My parents were very disappointed. They really wanted to see me walk and got denied that,” said Gerlach.

Ryan Dahl

Ryan Dahl is a current student graduating in Spring 2021 with a major in law enforcement. The Burnsville, Minn., native wasn’t too shaken up about the disappointing end to the semester. Similar to Gerlach, his graduation ceremony would’ve been a memorable moment for his parents and other family members.

“I’m not super disappointed about it, but the main reason I would’ve participated in the ceremony was for my parents and family,” Dahl said. “It was an opportunity for them to watch me move onto the next step of my life.”

Logan Kuschel ventured across Minnesota from Grand Rapids to attend Minnesota State University to pursue a mass communications major with a minor in communication studies. Kuschel was able to get ahead of her college career by attending post-secondary classes her final two years of high school to get her AA. She was looking forward to her graduation ceremony this spring with the anticipation that COVID wouldn’t be a problem.

Logan Kuschel

“My high school graduation didn’t mean much to me because I knew I was going to continue to get my bachelor’s degree, but a college graduation is a HUGE accomplishment to me,” said Kuschel.

Over the past year, she had concerns over if there would be a ceremony. Kuschel had hope that there would be an opportunity to have a safe ceremony this year for the senior class. But after receiving emails in the fall about there not being a ceremony for those graduates, her hopes started to fade.

“Personally for me, to graduate college with a degree is something I always looked forward to because not everyone gets that chance,” Kuschel said. “I always wanted to finish strong with my family there to see me get that diploma.”

Kuschel only had the chance to have the college experience for one full fall semester and part of the 2020 spring semester, before being sent home due to COVID. Just like most people, she didn’t anticipate COVID to still be relevant a year from that time. She never really got to have the full college experience she dreamed of for years.

“I feel like I missed out on the full college experience – learning to do things on my own, living with roommates and just being on my own. The only void I feel is missing out on the ‘fun years’ since I’m jumping straight into my career already,” said Kuschel.


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