By Cynthia Mendoza
Graduation 2020 for students of all ages will likely go down in history as a bittersweet one, with the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly disrupting most of the ceremony and celebration, but at the same time providing a memorable experience from new ways of celebrating.
Sunday, June 14, Pacific Union College (PUC) celebrated the graduation of 279 students via a virtual commencement ceremony. The school created a special graduation page on their website that included video messages from guest speakers, student leaders, and administrators.
The page includes a “Wish you were here” introduction featuring lots of yellow and green balloons, some with doodled faces, representing students who were not on campus to celebrate. But even though they weren’t there in person, circumstances didn’t keep them from being there in spirit or in name. Another video depicts dozens of graduation-themed lawn signs, each with a graduate’s name on it. As the camera pans out, it shows that all the signs spell out PUC, representing the Class of 2020.
Scripture reading and prayer were offered remotely by a graduate, in full cap and gown. “Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice!,” she read from Philippians 4:4-6 (NLT). “Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do. Remember, the Lord is coming soon. Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done.”
“Even though it is not how we expected to meet, we are thankful that you allowed us to come together to celebrate our accomplishments,” she said in her prayer. “This year has been full of unexpected occurrences; there’s been pain, suffering, and injustice, and many of our students have not been exempt from experiencing that, but you helped us to carry on.… We thank you for the technology available that makes today possible for us graduates and our families.” The prayer also included thanksgiving for the support of PUC faculty and staff in mentoring students to become better people and professionals, as well as for everyone involved in making the online events possible.
The commencement address was given by pastor Tim Gillespie, who attended PUC for one year during his college years. Gillespie opened with a bit of humor. “Man, did you pick a weird year to graduate,” he said. “Pandemics, protests, riots, earthquakes—we’re in a tough time right now. So, thank you for giving me something to celebrate.”
Gillespie also praised the virtues of the campus itself, especially the natural beauty in and around it. However, he said, that isn’t what makes PUC great.
“You know what makes a place great? It’s the people,” he said. “So that means it’s you. So, while you’ll be moving on, your legacy remains, and it will make this school richer and more diverse—and it will leave a deeper density of meaning for those who will walk these halls after you.”
In her address to the graduates, Senior Class President Shekinah Francis thanked the college for providing opportunities for growth. Francis also challenged her new alma mater that, “It is time to listen. Listen to the stories of your Black students and alumni.”
On behalf of the Board of Trustees, Pacific Union Conference Executive Secretary Bradford Newton also offered a message of congratulations. Citing the words of Martin Luther King Jr., who said that the church was not to be a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion but rather the thermostat that transformed the mores of society, Newton said, “Our prayer for you is that you become that thermostat of transformation as you depart Pacific Union College.”
By far, the longest video on the graduation page was the reading of the names of each of the graduates by academic dean Milford Mariano. A photo of the student was shown with each name.
“This is not how any of us anticipated finishing the school year,” said PUC President Robert A. Cushman Jr. in his video address to students. “In a few short days in March the coronavirus pandemic reminded us how quickly life can change for all of us. History will likely remember you as the COVID-19 class of 2020. I want to urge you not to let the pandemic define who you are today or who you become tomorrow.”
Each of the video messages were shared to inspired courage and hope, and they encouraged graduates to continue to “learn with purpose, rise in faith, and serve with love.”
You may view these and other videos at puc.edu/graduation.