Determination and resilience.
That’s how Westmont College’s Class of 2021 will be remembered — as the group of 306 students were ushered into their college experience during the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flow and now exit 14 months into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’re so proud of these graduates, who’ve endured the historic California Thomas Fire, the tragic Montecito mudslide, more than five evacuations and the year-long pandemic,” President Gayle D. Beebe said in a statement “They’ve overcome unbelievable challenges and catastrophic events to emerge stronger than ever. They developed a resilience that was so striking and it provided them the grit and endurance to lead the campus through the pandemic. They’re the reason we’ve remained living and learning safely in person all year. They knew how important it was to abide by safety protocols and restrictions to help each other and our Santa Barbara community. They’re so prepared and ready to lead and serve on the frontlines in all spheres of society throughout the world.”
The Class of 2021 will walk across the stage to celebrate commencement in-person at 9:30 a.m. today at Thorrington Field. The socially distanced ceremony will include two guests per graduate and will be closed to the general public. The event will be livestreamed at westmont.edu/commencement.
Of the 306 students who will participate in commencement, 124 will earn honors. The graduating class includes two veterans who served in the military before attending Westmont: Esteban Garcia Mares and Steven Carmona. Some Westmont staff and faculty refer to this class as the mighty 300 Warriors. Four students graduate with triple majors: Kimberlee Liang Gong, Zion Shih, Chisondi Simba Warioba and Logan G. Hodgson.
The commencement address will be given by Dr. Sandra Richter, Westmont’s Robert H. Gundry, professor of biblical studies. Dr. Beebe will present the Westmont Medal to Ron Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health, which will partner with Westmont for its new accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program that launches in spring 2022, pending approval from the California Board of Registered Nursing.
“The class of 2021 has, literally, seen fire, flood, and plague — and they are still here — ramping up to cross one of the most important thresholds of their lives,” Dr. Richter said in a statement. “They are stronger, more focused, and more mature than when they came. And we the faculty and staff and administration of Westmont College could not be prouder of this group of women and men who are launching out from our campus to change the world.”
Dr. Richter is writing a commentary on Deuteronomy while on sabbatical and will speak about “When You Cross the Jordan: Some Thoughts on Liminal Space.” Her most recent book, “Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters,” has won numerous awards.
“Any student who is graduating from Westmont with this class has experienced an extraordinary number of natural and pandemic-related circumstances,” says Edee Schulze, Westmont vice president for student life. “Making it to this point testifies to their grit and resilience. For those who’ve had an unusually difficult time and are battling to get to the finish line, we applaud your perseverance and courage.”
In September 2020, Jason Tavarez, director of institutional resilience at Westmont, oversaw efforts that resulted in Westmont being one of the few schools in the state to offer outdoor, in-person classes. In total, Westmont has administered more than 8,900 COVID-19 tests, which resulted in a 1.1% positivity rate, officials said.
Caylie Cox, who will graduate with a degree in English, says the last four years have taught her what it means to develop resilience and grit. “My class and I can claim one achievement: We’ve kept going,” she said in a statement. “Even when the world was literally falling apart around us, we have stuck together. We’ve built friendships, kept each other safe and embraced new ideas. I’ve seen my classmates grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually even in the midst of incredibly challenging times of life and death all around us.
“I couldn’t be prouder of my class. We are, without a doubt, resilient.”