Sonoma State University students celebrate graduation without pomp and circumstance

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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.

“Regardless of whether it’s just a cap toss in the air, I finished everything,” she said, so she will definitely celebrate. “So long as we keep it under 10 people,” Gamboa added.

Yoeono, the student body president, said his family will drive up from Martinez on Saturday, and family friends who live across the street from the Sonoma State campus will host a small lunch. Yoeono will wear his cap and gown and ceremonially walk across their porch. It’s not the day of fine dining and wine tasting they had talked about.

“They’re trying to really hype up this mock, faux ceremony with like eight people,” he said of his family. “They’re trying to tell me this is just as good, maybe trying to convince themselves.”

A virtual commencement weekend is the latest disruption for SSU, but it won’t be the last. The entire Cal State system has announced that most classes will stay online when the 2020-21 school year begins in August. SSU is hoping classes more reliant upon in-person instruction, like some in the nursing and arts programs, can find a way to meet safely.

No American university is entirely sure the virtual model is appealing enough to fill classes. Students accepted to Cal State campuses have until June 1 to decide whether to enroll for the fall semester. This week, Sakaki said more than 2,000 students had already paid their deposits for that term; the Rohnert Park school typically has 9,000 students at any given time.

Even if Sonoma State is able to retain those numbers, it seems unlikely that many students will choose to pay for housing at a closed campus.

One more thing that’s up in the air for SSU: commencement for the class of 2020. The university has made it clear that this year’s live event is postponed, not canceled. It has encouraged seniors to fill out a survey, linked from the commencement webpage, on the timing of a potential makeup ceremony.

“The numbers are skewing toward everybody saying yes, they’ll return,” said Mario Perez, Sonoma State’s vice president for university advancement and a co-chair of the Commencement Logistics Committee. “We’ve even heard from students who said, ‘I will come back next May.’ ”

But that will not be possible for everyone. This year’s graduating class comes from 20 different states and five foreign countries. Many will return home. And the longer the event is delayed, the more likely these young adults will be immersed in new lives.

“They still haven’t told us a month, or even a range,” Gamboa said. “So I feel like if it were to be in 2021, when I already have a job, it would be kind of like, ‘Oh, crud, now I have to go back up to Rohnert Park and graduate again?’ … It’s just not realistic.”

The SSU class of 2020 has already experienced more adversity than anyone could have imagined. They have weathered the ravages of the 2017 firestorm, smoke from the 2018 Camp fire, and rolling power outages before and during the Kincade fire in 2019, all of which caused class cancellations. And now their final act as college students, walking across the stage to the sound of music and applause, has been taken from them.

“This year’s graduating class holds a special place for me since many of them arrived at Sonoma State the same year that I did,” Sakaki said, “and we have certainly been through a lot together — fires, power outages and a pandemic. I see firsthand their tenacity, dedication and commitment.”

Yoeono feels bad for the immigrants and later-in-life undergrads who had to sacrifice just a little more for their diplomas. He doesn’t feel like a victim, though.

“It’s hard to feel cheated when there’s no single person who’s taking away the ceremony,” Yoeono said. “It’s simply an act of God that we can’t all gather together en masse.”

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