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Rain, resilience and the French bulldog: Everything you did and didn’t know about 2020/2021 KU commencement and recognition activities

After the cancellation of multiple commencement ceremonies for the Class of 2021, recognition festivities were moved online.

2020 graduates
Left to right: Rachel Gibbs, Megen Neill and Shantece Gonzalez finally had a chance to celebrate their 2020 graduation. The three graduated with degrees in Clinical Laboratory Sciences (CLS) from the School of Health Professions, but fears stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic led the University of Kansas to cancel commencement that year. On May 23, 2021, they celebrated together at the David Booth Kansas Memborial Stadium in Lawrence.

Well, that University of Kansas graduation was one for the history books.

You couldn't say it went off without a hitch. The 2020 and 2021 graduates in the Schools of Health Professions, Medicine and Nursing definitely experienced hitches. In fact, about mid-May 2021, it might have felt impossible to celebrate the culmination of academic effort.

But on May 23, select (and determined) University of Kansas Medical Center graduates from 2020 and 2021 attended KU commencement ceremonies in David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium in Lawrence. In all, about 1,700 graduates from the combined KU campuses gathered to celebrate.

They also had a chance to walk down the hill from the Campanile to the stadium, a graduation tradition for decades of KU graduates and one that was rendered impossible for 2020 graduates last year because of the pandemic. Concerns about COVID-19 led to the cancelation of the usual commencement activities last year, so KU administration decided to hold a belated commencement for the Class of 2020 a week after the scheduled commencement of the Class of 2021.

Weather cancels commencement #1-3

But as nearly the entire year of 2020 showed, things don't always work out as planned. Severe thunderstorms with lightning accompanied nearly 3 inches of rain in Lawrence. The three commencement ceremonies planned that day for the Class of 2021 were canceled. In a pandemic where resiliency is doctrine, graduates were once again going to have to bend to forces beyond their control.

Around 3,900 graduates had registered to participate in 2021's commencement. And a walk down the hill hadn't been canceled since 1981. So, a shared ceremony was scheduled for May 23.

Megan Greene, marshal of the combined event and associate professor of history at KU, opened the ceremony by drawing attention to the shared space - and the shared fate.

"While these two classes of graduates are separated by a year, it is fitting to celebrate them together today because they share a common bond - that is, they were dealt a lousy hand in the form of a global pandemic that interrupted their college careers, but they persevered to earn their degrees from the University of Kansas," Greene said.

Safety concerns move recognition online

Graduates from KU Medical Center had an additional disappointment. Their recognition and hooding ceremonies moved entirely online instead of in person.

Initially, students, faculty and staff planned for face-to-face hooding and recognition ceremonies May 15 at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall in Kansas City. In the original plan, only students were in person with friends, family members and other guests of the graduates invited to a virtual ceremony. But on May 11, concerns about safety unrelated to the COVID-19 pandemic led to a change to an entirely virtual ceremony.

In a May 13 town hall meeting, Robert Simari, M.D., said KU schools and departments in Lawrence hadn't planned attempted in-person recognition events for 2021 graduates due to COVID-19 concerns. KU Medical Center had tried for in-person events to reestablish a sense of shared community, and having to change plans back to virtual ceremonies made the change even more difficult, he said.

"We realize the change in plans, especially so late, close to commencement weekends, is incredibly disappointing," Simari said. "And it's particularly disappointing after so much disruption that these classes have had due to COVID."

Bend so you don't break

At the recognition ceremonies, Simari complimented the 325 School of Health Professions graduates, 297 School of Nursing graduates and 315 School Medicine graduates on their resilience.

"No one could have predicted the incredible global impact that COVID-19 would have, and no other class in the history of KU has faced the challenges you have had to overcome," Simari said. "Faced with numerous changes to your learning, training and research environments, you each displayed considerable resiliency that not only got you through this trying time but also will benefit you through your career."

Sally Maliski, Ph.D., RN, dean of the School of Nursing, shared similar thoughts in that school's recognition and hooding ceremony.

"It has certainly been a year like no other that has brought challenges and also opportunities. You have seen and participated in health care in ways never before experienced from critical care to long-term care to public and community health to social activism," she said. "Through all of this, you have had to be resilient, adaptive, and committed, which are skills and attitudes that will serve your well as you move forward in your careers."

World healers

At the School of Medicine recognition and hooding ceremony, Barney Graham, M.D., Ph. D., deputy director of the Vaccine Research Center at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, received an honorary degree. Graham is a 1979 graduate of the KU School of Medicine and was an integral part of developing the messenger-RNA platform and modified spike protein used in the development of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines for COVID-19.

Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D., MPH, MBA, dean of the School of Health Professions, drew inspiration from the Michael Jackson song "Heal the World" at that recognition and hooding ceremony. "I urge you today, our country's latest health professionals, heal the world around you. Make it a better place for you and me and the entire human race. Listen with an open mind and a compassionate heart," Akinwuntan said.

And now, receiving his doctorate of cuteness...

One very special "guest" of the School of Health Professions ceremony was Sprocket, a nearly 1-year-old French bulldog who joined the family of Lisa Trujillo, D.H.Sc., RRT, during the pandemic. Sprocket made a cameo appearance in the virtual ceremony just before Trujillo began speaking.

"Sprocket has attended many of my Zoom sessions, both invited and uninvited!" Trujillo said. "I knew he was around, but I was hoping he would stay in his bed while I was speaking."

Trujillo said she had some trouble figuring out how to blur her background. "So, I figured whatever happened, happened. I was so focused on my reading that I didn't realize he made a cameo!" she said.

Because let's face it: if we hadn't heard about resilience and spotted a cute dog in a virtual ceremony, how would you know it was 2021?

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