Pomp and circumstance and COVID-19

Picture it: January 2021. Plans were made and students moved hesitantly into their housing. COVID-19 tests were given. Quarantine was required. Masks were everywhere. Temporary changes were made to make classroom space safe.

One week into teaching: A third of my class was in quarantine or isolation, and cases were rising on campus. Worried that we might have to shut down, I began to wonder if it was worth the headaches and stress that came with the uncertainty of bringing students back to on campus and in-person coursework.

As our surveillance testing system was underway, we were at a breaking point. Then a snowstorm hit. It was a record-breaking storm that required people to stay inside and isolate. On top of contact tracing, it was as if the entire campus was on lockdown.

After the snow melted and the quarantine was complete, the cases seemed to be more managed. Class continued to move on, and life began to emerge from the winter storm. While things were anything from normal, it was the closest to normal we had been as a community in a year.

As the vaccine rollout began, our community was able to host a clinic site for faculty and staff. The site of the clinic was the chapel. This brought my heart such joy as this center point of campus life, a place that has held so many gatherings and holy moments on campus, was being used again in a new and holy way. Shortly after the first clinic, we were able to host a clinic for students. We slowly began vaccinating our community and moving forward with life. I felt grateful for the opportunity and gift of science that allowed us to be together and live as community once again.

Cases continued to decline as the semester progressed. And when it came time to honor our students and their work at the end of the academic year, we decided that we could host our first in-person convocation in over a year. We developed a plan, set up a rule guide and prepared for the convocation with as much pomp and circumstance as we could. There was an energy in the air, a buzz that had us in high spirits — and even though the weather was not the best that day, the sun managed to peak from behind the clouds as we concluded our celebrations.

The event itself was one of pure joy and excitement. Students received awards for life and work done during the time of the pandemic. Organizations who continued to find a way to provide programming on campus were recognized. Seniors who have endured much in their academic year were given awards on recognizing their resilience and perseverance.

As we move forward to commencement and baccalaureate, they too will be in person. These traditions and rituals are slowly returning and bringing new life and energy to campus and our students. Even though they still are not quite back to the normal they were before the pandemic, this past convocation has proved to us that we can gather to celebrate, pray, grow and learn together as a community.

The hope and energy that came from the renewal of changes in the seasons and in the developments of the vaccine has carried us through this difficult time and is pulling us forward into dreams for the fall. One thing is certain, not one of us was left unchanged by the pandemic. Life handed us many lessons, challenges, stress, anxiety and uncertainty these past 18 months. And that was no different for college students.

Back in January if you were to ask me if we would make it to an outdoor, in-person commencement weekend, I would not have confident. And as cases rose, I knew for sure that it was not going to be a reality. Thankfully, that was not the case. Our students continued to grow through the challenges and struggles they faced. They continued to show up and work, even when life kept challenging them.

I am hopeful as we continue to move forward to the fall that we can continue to bring our traditions and rituals back to campus, that we can continue to celebrate the life and lessons learned throughout the pandemic and that we can continue to grow and live into community with one another.