The day after Sacramento State students Ben Stringer and Jaclyn “Jackie” Sampson celebrated her 21st birthday in 2018, she admitted that she’d have been OK with carrying a festive balloon to mark the occasion.

“That told me she wasn’t afraid for big moments with an audience,” Stringer says. “And, yes, I was absolutely thinking about marrying this girl just a couple of months after we started dating.”

He spent more than a year plotting a surprise marriage proposal to coincide with a big, big moment: their May 18 graduation from Sac State at the Golden 1 Center.

Stringer first approached University President Robert S. Nelsen for permission, then worked out logistics with Sac State’s commencement coordinator Gladys Glaude. The plan called for the proposal to be made immediately after Stringer, 25, and Sampson, 22, both kinesiology majors, participated in the 8 a.m. Commencement ceremony for the College of Health & Human Services.

Commencement staff worked with the Golden 1 crew, who projected a photo of the couple on the huge video screens above the arena floor and played Ed Sheeran’s How Would You Feel over the public-address system during the proposal.

Once all HHS degrees were conferred, the couple joined hundreds of fellow graduates exiting the arena and pouring into walkways heading out.

Stringer then told Sampson he had to return to retrieve his wallet, which he said he probably left on a chair. He asked Sampson to wait for him in the walkway, he says.

“He’s always losing things, so it sounded plausible,” Sampson says.

Their friends and family members – and President Nelsen – had stayed in their seats. Back inside, Stringer retrieved an engagement ring from his mother, took off his cap and gown, tucked in his shirt, and stood at the end of the red carpet, so recently walked upon by departing graduates. He propped his iPhone on a nearby chair to capture a Facebook Live video of the impending moment.

Stringer then texted an unsuspecting Sampson, asking her to return and help search for the wallet.

“It was the longest wait at the end of the carpet,” he says.

“It was the longest walk down the carpet,” she says.

“All of a sudden, the music started,” Stringer, who claims to have practiced reciting his proposal for weeks, recalls, “and I had to choke down the tears. She got to the end of the red carpet, and I lost all of my words. I told her how much I love her and what it means to have her by my side.”

He knelt and proposed, and she said yes. Spectators remaining in the arena, watching the two live and on the big screen, cheered.

Since then, the couple have hardly had time to think about their wedding, but they say they plan to save for something extraordinary.

“I want it to be special, just as special as graduation,” Stringer says. “I don’t want to say ‘I do’ in Vegas in front of a fake Elvis."

“We won’t rush,” says Sampson, who grew up in Arizona and was one of top athletes for the University's women's gymnastics team during her four years at Sacramento State. 

“I know I’ll be with her for the rest of my life,” Stringer says. “I love this girl, and I can talk for hours about her and how the two of us came to be.”

Stringer and Sampson both work at BJ's Restaurant & Brewhouse in Arden Fair Mall. He’s thinking about pursing a master’s degree in kinesiology. She’s interested in a career in radiology. – Dixie Reid