Thousands of graduates descended on Husky Stadium on Saturday and more will be coming Sunday to celebrate earning their degrees at the University of Washington, many crossing the stage one or two years later than they imagined after COVID protections made the huge, in-person ceremonies impossible until now.
On Saturday, graduates carried purple and yellow bouquets and balloons with messages like “The tassel was worth the hassle” as they streamed across campus with their families on one of the first sunny afternoons in days. The Class of 2022 got to walk on time today.
On Sunday, the recent alumni will be back, determined to mark a milestone and grab a memory after the pandemic denied them a celebration for the past two years.
Salsalbeal Alsaedy’s sister Miriam helped her adjust her black cap over her hijab outside the stadium Saturday before posing for photos. Alsaedy, a biochemistry major from Everett, was all smiles as her best friend handed her a stuffed owl — also wearing a black commencement cap — to pose with. Her next stop is medical school at Washington State University, in Spokane.
But like the roughly 7,000 other graduates who walked at graduation Saturday — the most in UW’s history — her path to a diploma was disrupted by months away from classrooms, lab work and socializing with friends. “Being stuck at home made it significantly harder to focus,” she said. But, “through all that tribulation, you just push through it because you know your goal at the end.”
Tomorrow, her sister Miriam is heading back to Husky Stadium to officially celebrate with her graduating class — the class of 2020 — which lost out on the opportunity to walk the stage when the pandemic forced students indoors and online.
Nicole Stankovic is another one of the graduates donning a cap and gown Sunday afternoon.
“It was kind of a whirlwind but there definitely wasn’t really a last hurrah or anything like that. … I had a lot of academic work to do and it was just kind of focused on getting my degree,” she said.
Instead of bringing her loved ones – including some from overseas – to Seattle in 2020 so they could witness the grand finale of her undergraduate experience, she went back to her family’s home in Utah for a four-person backyard get together with her parents and sister. This weekend she’s excited to finally have the opportunity to formally celebrate with her immediate family, her friends and professors who helped get her where she is today: living and working in Seattle, preparing for graduate school.
“Just being locked up during this pandemic — it really made all of us value those little moments a lot more,” Stankovic said. “It’s just a really good opportunity to thank everybody who’s been a part of our lives.”
As the university developed virtual programming for 2020 and 2021 graduates, officials promised them a future opportunity for a proper, more traditional sendoff when the time was right, said Denzil Suite, UW’s vice president for student life.
“That was the thinking from day one,” he said. “We made that offer and we didn’t know whether or not students would take us up on that.”
Plenty of them have, Suite said, with roughly 2,500 students from previous graduating classes expected to attend Sunday. More than 6,000 Huskies from 2022 registered to attend Saturday’s commencement, which is about a thousand more than usual, he added. At the ceremony, hundreds of graduates overflowed into seats in the stands, the first time in recent memory at an event where those earning diplomas are usually seated on the stadium’s field.
“That just tells us that there’s a real desire to be in community, to walk across the stage, for families and friends to be together and celebrate. … It’s just a fantastic feeling on campus,” he said.
While it feels like a return to more familiar, pre-COVID-19 times, the impact of the pandemic is still present. The school provided thousands of masks for graduates to use, Suite said, and instead of shaking hands, university officials are offering an affirming head nod to each Husky as they receive their UW diploma cover.
Each commencement ceremony also features virtual elements that were used in 2021 and 2020 graduations, including a livestream for families who can’t travel to the event.
Maria Logan, a graduate returning to campus after finishing her degree in 2021, said her parents will watch from overseas, while her in-laws travel from Pullman to attend in-person.
“I am incredibly grateful that they gave an opportunity to everyone to have this experience because college graduation is a big deal,” she said. “After all the papers, all the classes, all the sleepless nights, all the stressful exams, we finally get this. … We finally get this moment.”
Even with in-person graduation scheduled this spring, the opportunity wasn’t guaranteed. Jocelyn Velasquez-Fresnares, a 2022 graduate who earned a degree in psychology, said she worried she might get COVID-19 and have to miss it. This weekend is her first experience at an in-person graduation ceremony, after finishing high school in 2020 as a Running Start student and having that commencement canceled; Velasquez-Fresnares graduated early since she earned college credits during high school.
“To graduate in person for commencement is something that’s really special. … I was scared that COVID was going to take this away from me again.”
And as a first-generation college graduate, she said the experience means as much to her family as it does for her.
Vatsal Kothari’s parents arrived from India on Friday to watch him receive his diploma Saturday; his father Rajesh was so thrilled, he said, that he wasn’t yet feeling jet lagged.
Kothari finished his degree in three years. As a freshman in the 2019-2020 academic year, he was forced to return home to India when classes went online. “I attended classes at 2 a.m.” because of the time difference, he said, to complete degrees in both finance and information systems. “It was a hectic thing for him,” said his father. “But that was the time that everybody had to change a lot of things.”
Graduation marks a new beginning as much as it offers celebratory closure for graduates’ latest chapter. At Saturday’s ceremony, university President Ana Mari Cauce reminded graduates that what they do next is critically important. “You are entering a world that is full of very serious threats,” she said. “Disease, inequity, racism, climate change, threats to our very democracy. It’s tough, but remember it’s also a world rich with the opportunity and the potential to make great progress.”
Recent graduates say the past few years have taught them a lot.
Stankovic said the pandemic has inspired her to pursue a master’s degree in public health instead of going to medical school as she initially planned; she’s motivated, she said, to help build public trust in the medical system and access to care. Logan is embracing the world of photography as a hobby after competing at the UW as a volleyball player whose team made it to the final four during the NCAA tournament.
Velasquez-Fresnares said the pandemic has helped her better understand what she’s capable of.
“I think my biggest takeaway was just not to limit myself and to always believe in what I can do.”
So after taking the weekend to embrace all the pomp of in-person graduation alongside friends, family members and professors – after going through plenty of less than ideal circumstances – they’re more than ready to keep moving forward.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.