Arizona State University President Michael Crow called it “one of the most complex semesters in the history of the known universe.” And for the 850 students who graduated this spring from the College of Health Solutions, it was certainly that and more.
The COVID-19 pandemic upended the final semester of the Class of 2020, with students finishing the last two months of their classes online, completing lab assignments remotely, meeting with advisers and faculty via Zoom, modifying their internship plans and research projects, and marking their graduation with the university’s first-ever virtual commencement.
Despite their physically distanced circumstances, health solutions seniors finished their degrees and were celebrated with the college’s first virtual convocation. Many of the traditional elements of a live convocation were the same, with Deborah Helitzer, dean of the College of Health Solutions, addressing the graduates (albeit in a pre-recorded message) and videos showcasing outstanding graduates: Paige Ellis, who earned a Bachelor of Science in speech and hearing sciences, and Hiral Soni, who graduated with a PhD in biomedical informatics. A student highlight video was also part of the ceremony, although featured students had to submit selfie videos instead of being interviewed on campus as they had for past convocations.
In addition to the videos, the website that took the place of the usual one-hour event in Desert Financial Arena on the Tempe campus included individual slides of the graduates, many of whom added photos and special thank you messages.
While she missed congratulating students as they crossed the stage, Helitzer said this year’s virtual event was in many ways more memorable and intimate.
“I was able to spend time getting to know more about our students as I scrolled through the online slides, read their messages and studied their photos, which made me feel connected with them in a way I hadn’t expected,” she said.
The more informal student highlight video also felt more personal, Helitzer said.
“With their selfie videos, I was able to hear their authentic voices as they spoke with passion about their dreams for the future. While the semester didn’t end how we had hoped, the way the members of the Class of 2020 completed their final semester showed their creativity, resilience and flexibility, qualities which will serve them well as they move on to the next step in their journeys.”
Video courtesy of the College of Health Solutions
Creating new ways to celebrate
Health solutions graduates found ways to make the online format special. Anita Daryayani, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in nutrition, arranged with a friend to watch the online celebration at the same time from their different locations.
“We made sure to click start at the exact same time on our computers, and we texted each other throughout the ceremony, sharing comments as we watched,” she said.
Teresa Lageson, a Bachelor of Science in kinesiology graduate, said her family made the event memorable.
“They blew up balloons, cooked some of my favorite foods and bought me two cakes,” she said. “They asked me questions about college, like what my favorite class was and what struggles I had. While I didn’t get to walk across the stage this semester, my family celebrated with me, and I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”
Several students had to celebrate with family from a distance. Adriana Verdezoto Alvarado, who graduated with her Master of Science in nutrition, watched the ceremony in Arizona while the rest of her family watched in Ecuador.
“They weren’t able to fly to the U.S., but we watched together from our respective computers,” she said. “My dad opened a bottle of champagne and cheered with my mom and sister during the ceremony. I did not have any champagne, so I cheered with water. My dad gave a speech about how proud he was. It was a happy moment for all of us.”
Sepideh Almasi, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, connected online with family too.
“My family is all around the world, so basically it is just me and my husband here, but we celebrated my graduation through Facetime and took screen shots while I was wearing my ASU cap and gown. My husband cooked my favorite food, and I baked my favorite Persian pastries. We will always remember the spring 2020 graduation!”
Several health solutions faculty arranged online celebrations for their students. Nutrition faculty member Maureen McCoy hosted a Zoom reception for about 40 graduates and 18 faculty members who spoke about each student’s accomplishments.
“After each speech, everyone unmuted to clap and celebrate and raise our glasses in a big cheer,” McCoy said. “Students emailed afterwards to say they really enjoyed the experience, that it felt even more personal to them to have that one-on-one time with the faculty and some of their fellow graduates.”
When the Class of 2020 began as first-year students in 2016, they were the largest class in ASU history. Their graduation has been equally historic.
“Our students will likely never forget the hurdles they overcame — and all the time they spent on Zoom!” Helitzer said. “This unusual semester had us connecting and celebrating in ways we had never done before, which has been a silver lining of this shared experience. We can’t wait to see what the Class of 2020 accomplishes next.”