Clayton Guzman, left, and Natalie Alvarez are among Sac State graduates celebrating their hard-earned achievement during trying times. (Photo courtesy of Eucario Calderon)
By Dixie Reid
Graduation for Sacramento State's Class of 2020 is unlike anything in the University's 73-year history. Students who have completed their degrees and returning to carry on the tradition of taking cap-and-gown photos are finding a nearly empty campus, because of the COVID-19 pandemic that so changed their final semester.
Along with disrupting their education, the pandemic upended students' lives, leaving many feeling overwhelmed, confused, anxious, and disappointed that their time at Sac State won’t end as they had dreamed.
Commencement ceremonies at Golden 1 Center for 9,778 graduating seniors — the largest class in Sac State’s history — are postponed until May 2021 because of COVID-19. The University made the decision in mid-March to move to online learning, leaving this year’s graduates little time to say goodbye in person to their professors, campus administrators and staff, and friends.
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“As a graduating senior, I felt angered by the situation, although it was something out of my control,” said Denisse Garcia, a Business Administration major who was sworn in as president of Associated Students, Inc. (ASI) at the start of the March campus closure. She completed the term of her predecessor, who had resigned.
“You work so hard to get to this moment and look forward to it with excitement. All of a sudden, everything in life takes a complete turn a few weeks before,” she said. “I felt like I owed that commencement celebration to my parents, who sacrificed so much for me to be here. Not being able to give it to them breaks my heart.”
Sac State will honor the 2020 graduates with a virtual celebration June 6 to commemorate their accomplishments until everyone can reunite at Golden 1 Center next year.
Garcia’s disappointment for what she and others are missing is typical, say mental health experts.
Active Minds, a national nonprofit that works to change the conversation about mental health on college campuses, in April surveyed 2,086 students across the country about the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. More than 90 percent said they felt stress or anxiety, with 80 percent citing loneliness and isolation.
University President Robert S. Nelsen, understanding those feelings, praised Sac State’s graduates for their toughness of character.
“It’s the most resilient class I’ve ever seen in my entire life. Everything was thrown at them, and they didn’t let it stop them. Instead, they persevered and succeeded,” Nelsen said.
“They came here because they wanted to be on campus, to be with the faculty and to have a face-to-face experience, and they wanted an education. They didn’t let COVID-19 stop them from getting that education.”
Sac State’s provost, Steve Perez, is impressed with their hardiness.
“If they’ve been with us for two years, and most have,” Perez said, “they’ve also overcome the campus smoke closure and the upheaval and societal questions brought to bear by the shooting of Stephon Clark.”
Sacramento State was closed for nine days in November 2018 to protect the campus community from the effects of heavy smoke produced by the wildfire that devastated the Butte County town of Paradise and caused 86 deaths.
Eight months earlier, two Sacramento Police officers killed the unarmed Clark after a foot chase into his grandmother’s backyard in south Sacramento. The district attorney’s decision to not charge the officers led to citywide protests, including a small demonstration on campus.
To help the campus community heal, shortly after the DA’s March 2019 announcement, President Nelsen invited students, faculty, and alumni to express their feelings in stage performances at the University Ballroom, in lieu of his spring address.
“These graduates have shown tremendous resilience and the ability to persevere and to pivot — and to still come through successfully,” Perez said. “It’s a testament to their desire to learn. It’s rewarding to us, because we tried so hard to make that possible for them.”
Faculty had just four days in March to go from teaching face-to-face in their classroom to delivering lectures virtually. The Center for Teaching & Learning and the Office of Information Technology & Resources provided guidance to make the transition a success.
It was a “radical shift,” said Roberto Pomo, a professor in the Theatre & Dance Department for 21 years. He had worried about whether he and his colleagues would get through the remainder of the semester and fulfill their responsibilities to students.
“My senior Theatre and Film students, who are used to a strict collaborative work ethic that requires face-to-face interaction, quickly demonstrated that human collaboration is still possible through Zoom and other technology platforms,” Pomo said.
“They discovered that they could indeed face any obstacle placed before them. If anything, this global pandemic impacted our students’ lives by allowing them to realize that no barriers can prevent them from achieving excellence.”
Students like Garcia struggled at first to adapt to a different way of learning. It took a few weeks to come to terms with the idea that the coronavirus pandemic “has become our new reality.”
“I had to adjust if I wanted to keep a sense of normalcy in my life,” Garcia said. “Most importantly, I realized that every single one of us is struggling one way or another, and to get through this, we have to come together and support one another.”
Student Health & Counseling Services has supported students throughout the pandemic, in part by sharing messages of support and concern via social media, said health educator Lara Falkenstein.
Graduating seniors in particular are having a difficult time finding their way into an unknown future.
“The seniors will miss out on graduation ceremonies and getting to say goodbye to their friends, faculty, and staff,” Falkenstein said. “Not having those moments is hard. So, it was a real mix of emotion.”
It’s helpful when students understand that they aren’t alone in this experience, she said.
Komal Kaur, who is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in Nursing, worried if she’d be able to finish school and get her required clinical hours because of the pandemic. She was able to compete clinical requirement through the UC Davis Medical Center, even though it meant picking up extra shifts.
“Being a first-generation student who doesn’t get to celebrate with a graduation ceremony is heartbreaking,” she said, “but I know that my parents are proud of the person I’ve become.
“Moving forward, this world needs nurses now, and I am blessed to be able to say that I can help.”
The Class of 2020 has many such success stories.
Nam Le, a Chemistry and Biomedical Science major, stood out in the 2016 Freshman Seminar course led by Ed Mills, vice president for Student Affairs.
“He told me then that he would graduate in four years,” Mills said. “I told him that was a great goal and, if he did, I would buy his honor cord for him.”
Le not only has “finished in four” but graduates summa cum laude, the highest academic distinction. And Mills recently delivered on his promise, presenting Le with his graduation honor cord, a part of the academic regalia for commencement, and congratulating him in person, from a safe distance, because of the pandemic.
“I wish we could do that with all of our graduates,” Mills said. “The past few months have been a struggle for everyone. While our graduating seniors are concerned about their future, they also are hopeful and excited. I admire them. They give me hope for the future. Their success is our success.”
Since he arrived on campus in 2015, President Nelsen has made it a tradition to greet and congratulate each graduate at commencement. He will miss having that interaction this year.
“It’s heartbreaking, because I love the students. I love seeing them,” Nelsen said. “I think this year’s class is battle-tested and will be phenomenal people, because they have what it takes to succeed.”
And his commencement speech, which he delivers at each ceremony to thousands of graduates and their loved ones, took on a decidedly modern vibe for the June 6 virtual graduation celebration.
“That was one of the most bizarre experiences,” Nelsen said. “I went outside on campus and did a graduation speech on video to nobody, just the trees, the turkeys, and the squirrels.”