After 14 weeks of online classes, isolation, and cancellation of their traditional commencement weekend due to COVID-19, La Sierra University’s graduates were eager to gather safely and celebrate.
On Sunday, June 21, 2020, they had just such an opportunity with the Drive-Through Celebration organized by the university to take place on the day the seniors would have graduated in a large commencement on Founders’ Green. In the meantime, a formal, in-person awarding-of-degrees ceremony was scheduled for September 13, a week before the start of fall classes.
For more than two hours beginning at 8:30 a.m., nearly 200 grads with their families and friends paraded in their vehicles through the university’s main entrance. They paused for a portrait photograph in front of the university’s central fountain and congratulations banners. Faculty, staff, and students, all with face masks in place, lined the roadside and grassy median, waving congratulatory signs and cheering them on.
The parade began at the front entrance kiosk, where university president Joy Fehr, assisted by interim provost Cindy Parkhurst, provided each grad with a bag holding a mortarboard and tassel that they could don for their photo farther up the road.
Many grads decorated their cars with bright lettering, balloons, signs, and other graduation trimmings, and everyone brought along family members or friends to join in the fun.
“I think with everything that’s been going on, this is the best way that I can imagine, celebrating with the people who helped me get here,” said Kyrsti Photias, a psychology major and exercise science minor from La Quinta, California. “It’s so cool seeing other people celebrate with the people that matter to them too.”
Sunday’s event also fell on Father’s Day, and for Photias’s father, Gregg Photias, who was driving the family vehicle, this made for a doubly joyous occasion. “With COVID and with everything that’s going on, this has been a blessing in disguise as far as being able to celebrate with her boyfriend, the parents, the family,” he said. “This is really, really a special day and a rewarding day.”
Vinh Nguyen, pastor of the El Monte Vietnamese Seventh-day Adventist Church and the father of graduate Timothy Nguyen, drove his family through the parade route with Timothy waving from the front passenger seat. “I am so proud of my son to graduate from here. I’m excited to see it,” said Vinh Nguyen as their car inched closer to the photography area. “It’s an awesome experience,” added Timothy, a biomedical sciences major aiming for a nursing career. “I’m glad for the school’s support.”
Many graduates described the drive-through celebration as an “amazing” experience and a meaningful event as they move on to other chapters in their lives.
John De Valles, a health and exercise science grad, noted, “This is very special and makes me feel a difference. We get to celebrate all together and see our professors one last time.”
“I’m blessed and glad this school is giving us the chance to have something,” said Zaira Armendariz, a film and television grad from Fontana. She added that the celebration event was like a “light at the end of a tunnel” during dark times.
“I love it. I didn’t expect it would turn out like this,” said Reggie Louis, a business management and health care graduate who arrived with a carload of family and friends.
“The drive-through graduation was so much fun,” said former Golden Eagles volleyball player and sociology graduate Kiana Krumm. “It was a blast seeing my professors and the athletic department cheering me on. The overall experience was so exciting, and I am so happy to have been a part of it.”
Last month, the California Pacific Conference, of which La Sierra’s Golden Eagles are members, voted Krumm as the recipient of the Dr. Jim Davies Award as the 2019-2020 Female Scholar Athlete of the Year. Going forward, she plans to play volleyball abroad while contemplating master’s degree programs.
For La Sierra faculty and staff, the morning’s event provided connection and community.
“It’s a lot of fun,” said assistant professor of history Alicia Gutierrez-Romine. “It’s an opportunity to let the students show their personalities, engage with them, and celebrate their accomplishments.”
“We’ve overcome all these obstacles, and we’re living in this great moment. It brings out the spirit of celebration after we've survived something,” added Ken Crane, associate professor and chair of the History, Politics, and Sociology department.
Fehr stood near the guard kiosk, congratulating each graduate as they drove into the campus and handing each a bag with the mortarboard and tassel.
“Seeing them in person, even though I was wearing a mask and they were in vehicles, reminded me of why we do what we do at La Sierra,” she said, “provide the foundation upon which our graduates can positively change their and our worlds. The excitement on their faces and the pride in their families’ faces made all the challenges of these past three-and-a-half months responding to COVID-19 worth it. I am so proud of each graduate. Each one is truly extraordinary.”