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Catawba College hosts three in-person commencement ceremonies

SALISBURY — As soon-to-be graduates decked in robes walked across the stage in Keppel Auditorium on Saturday afternoon, the college’s graduation ceremony had the look and feel of a traditional Catawba College commencement.

But with graduates socially distanced and much of the ceremony’s pomp and circumstance delivered via pre-recorded videos, COVID-19’s presence was still apparent.

Regardless of the safety precautions in place or the style of the ceremony, having an in-person graduation was significant for the college, especially after it was forced to forgo its traditional commencement festivities last year.

During three separate commencement ceremonies, Catawba College awarded bachelor’s degrees to 257 graduates of the class of 2021 on Saturday.

“There’s a lot of relief that we made it and a lot of pride in the right sense that we all did it together,” Catawba College President David P. Nelson said. “I just continue to be enormously impressed and proud of our students for doing what needed to be done so we could have this day.”

The college’s typical ceremony in which all graduates are awarded degrees at once was split into three ceremonies in order to comply with safety rules that have been in place during the last two semesters. 

The first ceremony of the day was held at 10 a.m. for graduates of the School of Arts and Sciences and Performing Arts, the second was held at 2 p.m. for graduates of the School of Education and the School of Health Science and Human Performance and the third and final ceremony was at 4 p.m. for graduates of the Ketner School of Business.

Before attendees could enter Keppel Auditorium, they were first sent through a COVID-19 screening process. Graduates were only allowed two guests to attend the in-person ceremonies in Keppel Auditorium, but Catawba broadcasted each graduation online as well. Families could spread out and see their loved ones walk across the stage via large screens set up in three other campus locations, or on Catawba’s website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Billed as Catawba’s 169th and 170th commencement, students graduating in the class of 2021 were joined by some students who graduated last spring and were unable to appreciate the moment with a physical ceremony.

“It’s enormously disappointing for students not to have that celebration of all of their accomplishments, so we invited them to return,” Nelson said. “We had a number who’ve done it at each ceremony today and it’s so good for them to be back on campus.”

One of those students was Brittany McGee, who earned her degree in elementary education last spring. McGee, now a second-grade teacher at West Rowan Elementary, said it meant a lot to her family to watch her walk across the stage.

“I was a first-generation college student. So, it was important to all of us,” McGee said.

McGee said some of the students she now teaches tuned into the ceremony via livestream. 

Darius Jackson, a 2021 graduate who played offensive line for the Indians football team, was face-timing his family members in Myrtle Beach during the ceremony so they could experience the moment with them. 

Jackson said the commencement felt special, especially after a difficult senior year. After playing only two games, the Indians called off its shortened spring football schedule. Despite the way the season ended, Jackson said the experience brought the college closer together.

“It was difficult because COVID hit us, but it was a family experience and it was a loving sports performance,” Jackson said. “Fans came, family came in and I’m just proud of everybody that came in with me, my friends. We did it.”

The accomplishment of graduating during a global pandemic was lauded throughout the ceremonies. In a recorded video, Senior Class President Adwoa Ofori-Gyau praised her classmates for advancing past various changes and challenges during their Catawba careers.

“During our time here, we have witnessed major moments,” Ofori-Gyau said. “The launch of the first ever African Club, the equity, diversity justice and inclusion task force, the welcome of our new president and the COVID-19 pandemic. These moments have brought solidarity, created a better space for open conversation and a taste of living life on the interweb. Class of 2021, through all of this, we made it.”

Bill Graham, outgoing chair of the Catawba College Board of Trustees, shared a similar sentiment in a pre-recorded message. Graham said no class or group of students has had to deal with so much in so little time in the history of the institution.

“A pandemic, making all these changes, learning outside, learning inside, changing rules constantly,” Graham said. “It’s been an incredible journey, but one in which you’ve learned how to adapt. And you’ll carry those skills with you for the rest of your life.”

At the day’s first commencement ceremony, graduates Oryan Mulul of Rishon LeZion, Israel, and Alberto Borges of Nairobi, Kenya, were presented with Whitener Awards, which are presented annually to the “man and woman in the graduating class who combine in themselves, in the highest degree, the qualities of character, leadership and scholarship.” 

Graduate Peter Lozano of Charlotte was presented with the Barbara Andrews Medal, “presented to the graduating senior in the distance and online program who most successfully embodies the attributes of character, leadership and scholarship.”

Constance Rogers-Lowery, Catawba College provost, recognized retiring faculty members James K. Stringfield Jr., professor of education, and Dr. Douglas K. Brown, professor of mathematics and chair of the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.

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