JACKSONVILLE — For all the faults and terrors contained within 2020’s first seven months, the graduation ceremony Friday morning at Jacksonville State University felt like a small but deserved concession from the universe at large: “You made it.”
Seniors at the school had wondered in March when or if they might walk a stage and collect their hard-earned diplomas, with the COVID-19 pandemic taking precedence over commencement ceremonies throughout Calhoun County, the state and the nation at large. The university announced that month it would follow local primary and secondary schools in canceling commencements planned for May. Months later, university officials made good on a plan announced in April to hold two days of graduation ceremonies near the end of summer.
There were two ceremonies on Friday, both for students who attended the summer semester; another two on Saturday would let students with a graduation date postponed earlier in the year walk as well.
The event managed to include many hallmarks of pre-COVID life: “Pomp and Circumstance” played, guest speakers offered personal wisdom and families watched from the stands at Burgess-Snow Field, where more than 100 graduates received their diplomas. Even the weather was forgiving; the sun’s sweltering heat was often overruled by dark cloud cover that never burst into rain, pushed along by a light, infrequent breeze.
There were also masks on nearly every face; families maintained about 6 feet from one another, and empty chairs sat on the field among graduates. Signs of the pandemic were present but seldom accounted for during the ceremony. Speakers never gave COVID center stage.
Students seemed to reflect that choice in their own attitudes: Pandemic or not, life has to go on.
“Stuff comes up and you just have to keep pushing forward and doing your best,” said Alexis McCorkle, a 21-year-old nursing graduate, after the ceremony ended.
McCorkle earned her right to speak about perseverance; she was among students who lost the buildings that housed their departments in the March 2018 tornado, which ripped apart Merrill Hall and Wallace Hall, homes to the business and nursing programs, respectively. Wallace Hall still hasn’t been replaced, though groundwork started on a new building to stand in for Merrill in February.
McCorkle had already adapted to adaptation, so the pandemic was just another thing to manage on her way through college.
“I didn’t want it to stop anything,” she said, “I just wanted to finish.”
Students returning to the university in August will see some changes on their road to the finish line, including mandatory COVID-19 testing that follows guidelines of the GuideSafe program, according to an email sent by school officials Thursday night.
Any student attending in-person classes or living on campus this semester will have to be tested for the coronavirus as part of “reentry testing,” tests administered through nasal swabbing. Random “sentinel” tests will be conducted on as much as 5 percent of faculty, staff and students throughout the semester, according to the email. More specifics about returning to class are available at jsu.edu/coronavirus/faqs.html.
The graduation ceremony seemed to churn up inspiration for the future; McCorkle said she had friends who were returning to classes in August, but her fellow nurses would roll with the punches and carry on.
University President Don Killingsworth assured students that they could make it in the real world, reminding them that they’d already faced at least two seemingly insurmountable crises in the last four years.
“If you can persevere through a tornado and global pandemic, then watch out world,” Killingsworth said during commencement.
Psychology graduate Robert Araujo said after graduation that he’d already seen some of what real life has to offer; people in his Guntersville community faced alcoholism, and he planned to use his degree to help treat them. He started school when he was 21, and spent 10 years grinding out a degree, he said. The time had come to put it to use.
Araujo was glad to have finally graduated, and with about 10 friends and family there to cheer him on.
"It's pretty cool, man," Araujo said. "I'm proud of them, and they're proud of me."