WINCHESTER — Wearing caps, gowns and face masks, two Shenandoah University graduates hugged each other Sunday after the first of SU’s two in-person graduation ceremonies.
It was the first time Danee Simmons and Phillip Conner had seen each other since March when the campus closed because of the coronavirus pandemic. SU has since reopened for in-person learning for the fall semester.
Both graduates agreed it was “awesome” they could experience an in-person commencement in addition to having a virtual graduation in May.
“It feels more official,” said Simmons, 22, of Martinsville, who earned a bachelor’s degree in math and criminal justice. Conner, 23, of Richmond, who earned a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and physiology, added that the in-person ceremony was “very fulfilling.”
Conner and Simmons were two of 130 graduates who chose to attend one of the two ceremonies in the James R. Wilkins, Jr. Athletics & Events Center. Graduates attending the ceremony completed their degrees in August and December 2019 or in May and August 2020.
Each ceremony lasted between 45 minutes to an hour. Attendance for each ceremony was limited to 250 people, even though 5,000 people typically attend commencement in the same space. Each graduate was allowed to have up to two guests. More than 180 people attended the first ceremony, while more than 210 people attended the second ceremony.
Safety precautions included requiring attendees to fill out a report of their symptoms 48 to 72 hours prior to the event. Attendees also had their temperatures taken before entering the Wilkins Center on Sunday. The safety measures and the setup for the event were approved by officials with the Lord Fairfax Health District.
“Graduates, I am so thrilled to see you,” SU President Tracy Fitzsimmons told graduates on Sunday during commencement. “You have persevered through so much.”
The hardest decision made during the pandemic so far, Fitzsimmons said, was to cancel the in-person graduation ceremony in May.
Fitzsimmons added that she believes Sunday’s ceremonies at SU are the first time a Virginia college or university has held an in-person graduation this year.
“Is it the same? No, it’s not physically the same, but the spirit and the joy and the celebration and the pride are the same,” Fitzsimmons said. “You are Shenandoah and you always will be. I can’t imagine a harder year for you to have started a job or to begin job hunting.”
On Sunday, Fitzsimmons awarded the President’s Medal to Dr. Colin Greene, director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, and to the Shenandoah University board of trustees.
Following the medal announcements, graduates had the opportunity to walk across the stage as their names were called. Wearing disposable gloves, Fitzsimmons handed each graduate a diploma. She did not shake hands nor hug any of the graduates.
“Honestly, I didn’t expect it to happen,” said SU graduate Kayla Robey, 21, of Rappahannock County, on her in-person commencement on Sunday. Robey said she was sad she couldn’t bring more than two people to celebrate her academic accomplishment, but she’s happy she could walk across the stage and receive her diploma.
Robey is teaching second grade at Garland Quarles Elementary School in Winchester after earning her bachelor’s degree in elementary education.
For SU graduate Chris Zurinski, 35, of Delaplane, the road toward earning his bachelor’s degree in environmental science from SU was a tough one. While his graduation ceremony was “short and sweet,” he added that he’s just happy to have had one.
“It’s just a relief to see this thing through,” Zurinski said. “I’m really grateful.”
Zurinski is working for an environmental consulting company in Woodstock and will be designing septic systems in the future. Zurinski said he wouldn’t be where is professionally without SU, especially since one of his professors referred him to the position.
“I’m ready to hit the world running and do some good,” he said. “We definitely need it right now.”