Class ring deliveries, video conference celebrations and small family gatherings replaced the time students had originally planned to spend walking the stage this week.
Texas A&M University postponed graduation due to COVID-19, but Thursday and Friday were packed with digital festivities — from the university and some of its colleges — to celebrate the record 10,796 students who earned their degrees this spring.
Jack Bednarz, who majored in meteorology, recently bought a cap and gown when he found out the College of Geosciences was hosting a celebration via Zoom. The Thursday meeting was a chance to gather virtually as a college, then break off into smaller video calls to be with graduates from his major. The ceremony, Bednarz said, was emotional as members in his tight-knit major of fewer than 15 people bonded one last time. “Being able to have this more personal experience was just really special,” Bednarz said.
The more than 10,000 students are from the College Station flagship campus and other educational sites, including the College of Dentistry in Dallas, the School of Law in Fort Worth and campuses in Galveston and Doha, Qatar.
On Friday, an online conferral of degrees video was posted to gradcelebration.tamu.edu, featuring leaders such as President Michael K. Young and System Chancellor John Sharp. In the video, Provost and Executive Vice President Carol Fierke stressed that the A&M leaders want to host an in-person ceremony in the future.
The names of the more than 10,000 graduates were also displayed on the Kyle Field scoreboard throughout the day on Friday, and it was live streamed on the university’s social media channels. It took seven hours for every name to be shown.
Sydni Borders, who earned an animal science degree, said she is pleased with how university leaders have responded to COVID-19, but that it was devastating when classes and special events such as Ring Day and graduation were canceled. She said the fact that her professors were easy to reach despite the unprecedented circumstances made getting through the semester more manageable.
In an effort to keep what would have been her graduation day special, Borders scheduled her Aggie Ring to be delivered Thursday.
Borders said it is challenging in some ways to watch the semester end.
“It’s pretty sad too, because we were supposed to celebrate with all of our friends but we can’t do that. ...” Borders said. “It’s definitely bittersweet, but the thing they’ll never be able to take from us is that we earned our rings, we got our degrees and we are Aggies.”
Looking back on the past semester, animal science alumna Jeremy Solis said he is grateful to his professors who made the change from in-person course work to online material as seamless as possible, and to his family for their support.
Understanding the material in a strictly digital format was difficult at times though, Solis said, but group messages with fellow students helped him through.
Solis lived in College Station the entire spring semester to continue working on campus. He returned to his parents’ home in Austin on Friday, where he was welcomed with a banner in the front yard that had his photo on it and said “quarantined grad.”
“It’s definitely crazy to think that I sat in my classes for the very last time and didn’t even know it,” Solis said. “If I would have known that it was the last time that I was sitting in class with my friends and classmates listening to lectures, I definitely would have taken in the moment a little bit more.”
Bednarz and his sister stayed in College Station for the rest of the spring semester so they could remain quarantined from other relatives in their hometown. Bednarz resigned from his job at a local bank, which he had held for two years, soon before COVID-19 restrictions were placed, in hopes to stay healthy during his final weeks at A&M.
He said the city looked like a ghost town to him with students absent, and the way he went about life changed. Grocery trips were completed early in the morning and with masks, Bednarz said. Sometimes Bednarz would walk around campus, where he said hearing the rustling of the leaves and the nearby train horn felt strange without student voices mixed in.
“It was a very somber feeling,” Bednarz said. “It really put into effect how much this virus had changed the world.”
This weekend, Bednarz said he will be spending time with his family for a small graduation and Mother’s Day celebration.
For Taylor Tulloch, video calls with friends and family made remaining in College Station to focus on her studies feel less lonely.
The bioenvironmental studies alumna said her time in Aggieland is dotted with favorite memories of her friends at Fish Camp and football games. Not seeing classmates and professors throughout the semester was challenging, but Tulloch said she took more time to appreciate her experiences than she may have if the semester ran as usual.
“I feel like I missed out on things that would have happened otherwise, but I gained a different perspective from it and realized it doesn’t take away my achievements,” Tulloch said. “I still technically graduated. I still got to do all the things I wanted to, it’s just in a different way.