At long last, graduates from the Westmont College class of 2020 gathered on campus Saturday to celebrate their collegiate accomplishments with a commencement ceremony — about 17 months after finishing their degrees.
About 180 members out of the 298 total graduates from the class of 2020 attended Saturday’s ceremony, finally getting their moment to walk across the graduation stage and celebrate their accomplishments alongside family members and friends. The procession of graduates was led by the playing of bagpipes as their families gathered under a large tent near Carr Field for the ceremony.
The morning was filled with hymns, prayer, reflection and praise for the graduates of 2020 and their perseverance through unprecedented local and global catastrophes — the Thomas Fire, Montecito Debris Flow and the COVID-19 pandemic — during their time at Westmont.
“Five years ago, you began a long and arduous journey of working to grow academically, improve spiritually, grow emotionally, and connect socially,” President Gayle D. Beebe said Saturday. “None of us had any idea what lay ahead, and yet here we are today standing on the other side of local and global catastrophes, recognizing that what lies ahead of us is an opportunity to make the most of what we’ve learned during the time we’ve been together.”
Several faculty and student speakers during the ceremony reflected on how the graduating class grew during their time at Westmont, reflecting on cherished memories with gratitude for Saturday’s celebration.
One student speaker in particular, Marie Odile Ndayishimiye Uwineza, told Saturday’s crowd about her experience of leaving her home country of Rwanda to attend Westmont College.
“When I left my village the way I did, I knew that God was going to give me new villages, I just didn’t know how,” Ms. Uwineza said. “You would not believe how big my village has become, (and) how many people came together to make sure that I had all I needed to thrive even in times when social distancing was the way of life.”
Ms. Uwineza also shared how the pandemic was very challenging for international students, as many countries began shutting their borders due to the spread of COVID-19 and students could not afford to stay in the area. In response to this, Westmont waived the housing fee during the summer of 2020 and a donor provided stipends for international students to get groceries.
“Nothing tops this kind of support that made it possible for international students to have a summer village,” she shared. “We became each other’s family, lifting each other up, while trying to make sense of what the world was facing at the time. This answered prayer, this support system I had during one of the most challenging times our generation has ever seen reflects what I hope is my message for us today — God has and will always use the village he has surrounded us with as his channel of love in order to make his presence known and felt.”
In addition to faculty and staff reflections, students heard from commencement speaker Marcus “Goodie” Goodloe, an author, scholar and senior fellow for Ethics and Justice at Dallas Baptist University’s Institute for Global Engagement. His address on Saturday was titled “Habits: Six Steps to the Art of Influence,” and he praised graduates for their strength through challenges.
“If there were degrees earned for grit, you would get one, and you would graduate today with honors,” Mr. Goodloe told the class on Saturday. “You’ve demonstrated perseverance through unimaginable circumstances, and whether through Zoom or social distant learning, you have earned not just a degree, but a heartfelt salute from this beloved institution and all those who serve to advance its mission.”
Several students were presented with achievement awards on Saturday for demonstrating outstanding academic excellence, leadership and influence. Graduate Kayla Petersen was awarded the Dave Dolan Award, Emily Mata and Dante Poleselli were awarded the Kenneth Monroe Award, Nathan Tudor was awarded the Faculty Scholarship Award and graduates Cassidy Rea, Chena Underhill and Michael Oldach were given the Dean’s Award.
Among the more than 100 graduates in attendance at Saturday’s ceremony was Brenda Rodriguez, who graduated with a degree in sociology in May 2020. She told the News-Press on Saturday that she was thankful to go to a school that prioritized giving the class of 2020 a graduation.
“Even if it is late, we get to walk across the stage with all our friends and have the opportunity to take pictures and wear a cap and gowns, which we took for granted before COVID,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “But it’s a really big privilege that not a lot of people had our year.”
When the pandemic hit, the class of 2020 at Westmont — and at most universities across the nation — was left to finish their degrees online. So for many students at Saturday’s ceremony, returning to campus brought a sense of joy and long-awaited closure.
“It definitely feels like a chapter closing,” Bryan Briones, a 2020 graduate with a degree in kinesiology, told the News-Press. “And I think that’s been the neat part of being able to have this postponed is that you’re leaving behind what we experienced and now moving forward.”