Sonoma State University students celebrate graduation without pomp and circumstance
The heart of the Sonoma State campus was lovely Friday afternoon, but strangely quiet. Large portions of the university grounds are fenced off, having been converted into emergency accommodations for people exposed to the coronavirus.
All in all, it looked like the dead of summer at SSU, not the eve of one of the most joyous weekends of the year.
In normal times, were it not for the coronavirus and shelter-in-place, more than 2,000 seniors would stride across a stage at SSU this weekend in a series of ceremonies to accept their diplomas.
But commencement weekend has been postponed, indefinitely, replaced by an online event that promises to be like nothing that came before it. It’s a disconcerting preview for every high school senior and soon-to-be SRJC grad in Sonoma County.
The scene was especially hushed at the Green Music Center, where a succession of graduation ceremonies — three Saturday, three Sunday, one for each of SSU’s six schools — were to have taken place. The tiered lawn that would have seated hundreds of families looked in need of a mow Friday. On either side of the roll-up doors that open the rear of the hall to the outdoors stood now-purposeless scaffolds. Plastic tarps flapped in the breeze.
Students came and went, toting gowns and mortarboards for photos on the lawn or among the olive trees in the Green Center Courtyard. They, like the school itself, were doing their best to carve out a moment of elation during the worst pandemic in modern history.
“When we first found out about all of this, it was pretty devastating,” said Emily Gamboa, a graduating English major from San Diego, as she returned from a photo shoot, draped in colorful cords and sashes. “I’ve been here for four years. I was pretty involved. I really applied myself. And to not be able to, like, have the glory of accomplishing that was pretty devastating.”
Instead of showing up for their ceremony this weekend, graduates are encouraged to log on to the Sonoma State Commencement webpage, where they will hear taped messages from SSU President Judy Sakaki, California State University Chancellor Timothy White and SSU Associated Students President Daniel Yoeono, among other speakers. The names of all 2,580 graduates will scroll across the screen, and the school will introduce a social media toolkit for honorees to access.
The university is calling it a “celebration,” not a “commencement.”
“Commencement is such an important and beautiful part of the Sonoma State experience,” Sakaki said. “So it is truly disappointing that we cannot be together in person to honor the remarkable members of the class of 2020.”
Part of the annual festivities at Sonoma State — and maybe the more meaningful part, for many students — is a scattered series of receptions hosted by individual departments and “affinity groups” that celebrate their cultural heritage or other markers of their identities. Those will still happen in 2020, but without the pizza and punch and hugs. This year, those gatherings, like so much of the educational experience, are going online, mostly via Zoom.
It’s not what anybody imagined when they enrolled at SSU, or even when they began their final semester Jan. 21. But people adapt. Gamboa said her parents, bless their hearts, don’t typically send her a lot of things. This week, though, they mailed a big box full of goodies and gift cards — including one to BevMo, so Gamboa can buy a bottle or two of sparkling wine and have “a little woo-hoo,” as she put it, with her friends.