During a weekend when the sun shone brightly and hopes for the future shined brighter still, William Woods University officially wrapped up perhaps the most unusual academic year in school history by celebrating its 151st commencement ceremonies, on May 1-2. The undergraduate and graduate ceremonies represented the first “traditional” on-campus commencement exercises since 2019, after the 2020 version was completely altered due to the coronavirus pandemic.
But like everything in the Year of COVID-19, even WWU’s graduation ceremonies were mostly traditional, as adjustments were needed to ensure the health and safety of all attendees. Instead of one undergraduate ceremony, there were three on Saturday May 1, with graduates and their loved ones required to wear masks and sit in a socially-distance arrangement inside McNutt Auditorium. Sunday, May 2 featured four graduate school commencement exercises, at 9 a.m., 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., instead of the usual single ceremony.
All told, 128 undergraduates received their diplomas on May 1, followed by 166 graduate students on May 2. All ceremonies were live-streamed so that family members and friends of the University could follow the events online, in real time.
Commencement addresses were different in 2021 as well. Instead of a single commencement speaker sending the graduates off into their futures at the undergraduate and graduate ceremonies respectively, each of the seven events had a different William Woods faculty member delivering the address. Speakers at Saturday’s undergraduate ceremonies included Dr. Thomas Trice, Associate Professor of Business; Dr. Paul Schiltz, Associate Professor of Equestrian and university veterinarian and Dr. Stephanie Wells, Professor of English.
“You have faced down a deadly pandemic that had not occurred in our nation in 100 years and made it through,” Dr. Trice told undergraduates. “You sacrificed your sports, your spring breaks, seeing your families and loved ones, and social time with your friends to make it to today. Let the resilience you utilized to overcome these challenges strengthen your resolve and prove that there is nothing you cannot achieve when you believe in yourself and have empathy for others,” he said.
“You are successful, right here, right now,” said Dr. Wells in her remarks to undergraduates. “You have succeeded in graduating college. You have beaten the odds. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, only 22% percent of Americans have a four-year college degree. Welcome to the club!” she said.
Graduate commencement on May 2 included four faculty members, which included Dr. Timothy Hanrahan, Associate Professor of Physical Education; Dr. Miriam O’Callaghan, Assistant Professor of Management; Dr. Charlotte Miller, Assistant Professor of Education, and Dr. John Long, Associate Professor of Education.
“Remember as you leave today that while you have accomplished much in your studies there is more to education than knowledge,” Dr. Hanrahan remarked to graduate students. “Be a teacher and a leader that has a life remembered by others for how kind and supportive you were, while setting high expectations. The lives you impact will be many and fulfillment of your work will be rich. If the COVID era and recent political climates have taught us anything, it is to always take the opportunity the help others.”
Commencement weekend began on Friday, April 30 with the traditional Ivy Ceremony, and served as a culmination of a challenging year when William Woods persevered in the face of a global pandemic that radically altered the standard practices of higher education across the nation. But despite these challenges, William Woods was still able to complete the 2020-2021 academic year with on-campus, in-person instruction for the entire year, with relatively minimal incidence of positive COVID-19 cases among students, faculty and staff. The University held events such as the Fall Ivy Ceremony, intercollegiate athletic competition and Alumni Weekend in addition to classes, and also avoided having to lay-off and furlough University employees.
And this most unusual and challenging year in the University’s 151 years all came to an end amid the joyous sights and sounds of a William Woods spring, with sunshine, graduation and the exciting potential of 294 graduates.
“We were beyond pleased to be able to hold our traditional commencement exercises to celebrate our graduates and their families in a safe and physically-distanced manner,” said WWU President Dr. Jahnae H. Barnett. “The determination, discipline and flexibility of our entire campus community made it possible for us to withstand this year of health and safety challenges, and our 2021 commencement ceremonies were a culmination of those extraordinary efforts.”