By Tiffany Moore
COVID-19 may have forced cancelation of in-person classes and postponed graduation at Ohio Wesleyan, but it didn’t stop five seniors from a commencement ceremony while on a service trip in Puerto Rico.
OWU President Rock Jones announced OWU would turn to remote teaching on May 13 and four days later the university postponed commencement due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
As news spread about cancelled classes and delayed graduation, the mood of the Puerto Rico service trip shifted toward “worry” and “angst”, according to Kerri Robe, assistant program manager for OWU’s Community Service Learning.
It hit everyone hard, including senior Annelise Hernandez.
“When I read the e-mail I was speechless and then cried because I love OWU so much,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez said the news that campus life was ending was shocking.
“Even though I was ready to wrap-up my time as an undergraduate student, I wasn’t ready to leave the campus community yet,” she said. “I wondered if my family would be able to see me walk across the patio at Merrick to receive my diploma in honor of their sacrifices and my efforts.”
Senior Selam Weldu said rapidly changing events shattered her dreams.
“I got so emotional because I envisioned being able to walk down the stage and get my diploma having my family and friends there,” Weldu said. “It felt like a loss, like I would be losing a very important moment.”
But unbeknownst to them and the other seniors on the trip, Robe texted Sally Leber, the director of Community Service Learning, to describe the senior’s heartbreak.
Leber texted back and said, “Maybe you should do something for them,” Robe said.
So, Robe planned a surprise graduation ceremony in two days for Hernandez, Weldu, Avianna Carmoega, Dylan Hays and Duncan Copeland, with support from Residential Life coordinator Dave Hampshire and sophomore Ashleigh Leonard.
“Our seniors have worked incredibly hard and have sacrificed many things to be at this point. The uncertainty with commencement, I felt they deserved to be recognized for their accomplishments,” Robe said, “Dave, Ashleigh and I wanted them to feel special, to feel recognized, to feel included.”
And the ceremony turned out to be very special.
“When they brought us outside and said ‘Welcome to your graduation’ we were all overwhelmed with emotions and cried,” Hernandez said.
Hamshire began the ceremony by announcing each student as they walked down a pathway, passing a fountain and foliage toward the courtyard of the Airbnb where they were staying.
Leonard presented each with graduation caps made of cereal boxes and aluminum foil, a hand-written diploma, and a Puerto Rico lanyard as a cord.
After all the graduates were announced, Hampshire gave an emotional and motivational speech, Robe said.
Seniors received Golden Bishop Awards – golden butter cookies – and a reading of character traits for each graduate, created by Hamshire, Robe, and Leonard.
Robe said she told the seniors and Hampshire and Leonard they had all made a lasting impression on her.
“I am deeply grateful to have shared this experience with you. Each of you is destined for greatness,” she said she told them.
At the ceremony’s end, Robe read the motivational poem “The Oak Tree” before the seniors tossed their improvised graduation caps into the air.
Copeland said the graduation ceremony made him feel acknowledged and respected.
“Ashleigh, Dave and Kerri went above and beyond with their thoughts and efforts to provide something meaningful for us,” he said.
Carmoega said it was a moment she will cherish for life.
“It meant the world to me and as soon as they called out my name I wiped my tears and skipped across the stage with a smile on my face,” she said. “We were all sniffling and looked around at each other in pride. It was a meaningful moment I will never forget.”
Hernandez said, “This was my capstone experience that made it perfectly clear that I chose the right place to be – my OWU home away from home.”
Weldu said the virus and its aftermath can be a valuable lesson to underclassmen.
“Enjoy all the moments you get to be with your friends on campus and the moments you get to interact with your professors and classmates,” she said. “You don’t know when your last day is going to be your last day.”