Guest commentary by Rachel Potts-Wells
Imagine you wake up one morning to an email saying that everything you’ve been working for over three long years will not be celebrated in the way you had hoped. All the late nights, all the tireless days spent in the library, all the hours spent in class, all the sermons preached, all the exams taken, all the client sessions, all the papers written, all the long hours worked on top of a full course schedule — all of it was going to be cancelled. Many of you do know this reality if you have a family member in high school or college. In some way, we have all experienced life being canceled during the COVID-19 pandemic, but I would argue that our class of 2020 graduates felt this canceling in a unique and painful way.
I am a dual degree student, which means I will be here at Louisville Seminary for around five years completing two three-year degree programs. I entered seminary with this very graduating class of 2020. I know you may not know a lot about entering with a cohort of only twentyish people, so let me paint a picture for you. At Louisville, you and your entering cohort take most of your classes together, including a special class reflecting upon your church or community placements. Your entering cohort becomes close — closer than almost any other people I’ve known before. We came in as family and left as colleagues with massive amounts of respect for one another.
In 2017, the class of 2020 was considered a large entering class and was the most racially and denominationally diverse class Louisville Seminary had ever had. We called ourselves the “Agents of Change” and got active in every aspect of campus life. The Agents of Change did make major changes on campus. We helped change the curriculum for the M.Div. and M.A. in marriage and family therapy degrees. We changed the bathroom signage and ensured there was a gender-neutral restroom in every building on campus. We helped hire two wonderful new professors. We helped welcome Alton B. Pollard III as our new seminary president. We changed countless other things by working campus jobs and working in the Louisville community. The impact of the class of 2020 will be felt for a very long time on this campus.
On the day they heard their graduation was canceled, my friends were heartbroken. That heartbreak amplified as we got closer to the actual date of graduation. Our professors created a Facebook page for the “virtual commencement.” The two weeks before graduation, our professors made up awards and gave them to our graduates on the Facebook page. Each award was given with a heartfelt video that ranged from very silly to very serious. People also were encouraged to post loving messages of support.
The week before graduation, I enjoyed a socially-distanced happy hour with some graduates outside on our lawn chairs. After listening to them talk for a while, I had an idea. It’s an idea that was mostly inspired by the way I spent the morning before my graduation ceremony at Austin College, enjoying doughnuts and a sparkling beverage delivered by my sorority, Omega Zeta. Maybe I could do something like that for these graduates. I sent out a group text to about 10 students to see what they thought. They loved the idea!
I sent some emails to professors, faculty and staff the next day. With a lot of responses and guidance from friends and faculty, I decided to reach out to grads to ask if they wanted a delivery. Since we are still living in a pandemic, it was important to me that any students who may have been immunocompromised could opt out if they felt this was a danger to their health. I also wanted to ensure we could accommodate any food allergies. All 19 graduates said an enthusiastic “YES,” so we got to work.
The donations started to pour into my Venmo account from faculty, staff and students. The offers for help were amazing and overwhelming. Sarah Hong graciously designed and donated special cards for the class of 2020. Gina Meester offered to pick up all the doughnuts I had ordered. Ardath Curtis helped me pick up beverages and some ribbon for the doughnut boxes. Jen Van Beek made homemade lemon and blueberry cakes, and made fruit cups for our gluten free grads. The name of every person who donated and helped went inside Sarah’s cards and were named “The Graduate Care Team.”
On the morning of May 16, six other students and I (with my spreadsheet!) ventured out into the world in our masks and gloves delivering care packages to the homes of our beloved friends and graduates. Our peers and mentors. People who deeply deserved to mark this occasion in their lives. People who got to mark the end of their time at Louisville Seminary and the beginning of their ministries and therapy practices. People who hopefully now know just how much their community is cheering them on. In the midst of a pandemic, we put a little time and effort in, while taking precautions, to help our friends mark this milestone. As the wise writer of Ecclesiastes says, “So I commend enjoyment, for there is nothing better for people under the sun than to eat, and drink, and enjoy themselves, for this will go with them in their toil through the days of life that God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15). I hope that in this small act of care, we helped the day of commencement for the 2020 grads “go with them” as something they will always remember.
Seminary mobilizes care team during COVID-19 graduation
RACHEL POTTS-WELLS is a rising fourth year dual degree student at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary pursuing an M.Div. and a Master of Arts in marriage and family therapy. She is under the care of New Covenant Presbytery in Houston.