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`23J graduates feeling unrecognized by upcoming spring graduation ceremony

In the words of Dr. Ronald Moore of the University of Washington Philosophy Department, “commencement exercises and freshman convocations are punctuation points — symmetrical points that form the boundaries of academic experience and in doing so contribute an essential element to its meaning.”

To use Dr. Moore’s analogy, some Colby students are heading towards an unfinished sentence. As the end of an unusual college experience approaches, the ’23J graduates have learned they will not be permitted to walk at graduation this coming May.

This unexpected decision, which was determined by a close faculty vote, has left many `23J graduates feeling confused, upset, and overlooked. Watching graduation from the sidelines is a dispiriting way to end four years of growth, learning, and community building — especially when a global pandemic has already taken so much away.

In the fall of 2020, students grappled with a decision that felt monumental: whether or not to return to Colby for the fall semester. Colleges across the nation were attempting to reopen, and the news was dotted with reports of their failures to do so. Students missed their friends and they missed their school, but if we returned, would they actually get to see them?

Some students faced unpredictable and fluctuating financial situations, sick family members, pandemic-induced or exacerbated mental health challenges, and fears of a virus whose transmission and effects were still largely a mystery. Others felt that the value of an in-person Colby education was too great to sacrifice, and decided to pursue other opportunities until they were confident they could return for a more normal semester.

The College itself encouraged students to ask such questions and make the decision that was right for them. They voiced their support of our leaves of absence.

“In the midst of a global pandemic, I decided to take the fall of 2020 off from Colby to pursue other experiences and opportunities, with the hope for some stability and predictability as much of the world was still turning on its head,” Ellie Batchelder ’23J said.

Colin Sullivan ’23J took a leave of absence to work “as a laboratory technician in a COVID-19 testing lab, hoping to help positively impact the eradication of the virus as well as learn career relevant skills and information in the process.”

“When I reached out to the school to ask about this process, they were extremely accepting of it, and even encouraged it,” Sullivan said. “[Colby] encouraged us to find jobs elsewhere that may be safer than returning to campus, or to stay at home with family who may need our help.”

“In doing so, it was my understanding, and stated by the school, that we would be able to walk at graduation with our class even though we were not receiving a diploma,” he continued. “When I returned to school, I was surprised to hear from my peers that the rule had changed.”

Though the College has spoken to individual students, they still have not made a formal announcement about this change. Students feel this has perpetuated rumors and contributed to feelings of mistrust. For many ’23J graduates, the lack of communication feels unprofessional and unfair.

Above all, however, students are upset that the exception granted to ’22J graduates has not been extended to ’23J graduates.

Like Sullivan and Batchelder, Ian Peterson ’22J took a leave of absence during the fall 2020 semester due to COVID-19. He was one of multiple ’22J graduates who walked at the spring 2021 graduation ceremony. Peterson voiced his sympathy for ’23J graduates and expressed the loss he would have felt if he had not been allowed to walk.

“I would have lost a capstone piece of the Colby experience that I had conceptualized; an experience that nearly all of my peers would share,” Peterson said. “Many of my best friends, and my oldest friends, from Colby were in my class. I feel super fortunate to have connected closely with the folks in grades above and below me, but at the end of the day, I entered Colby in the class of 2021.”

’23J graduates do have the option to return for the spring 2023 graduation, but the prevailing sentiment is that this is not only inconvenient and costly, but also further disconnects them from their class peers. Like Peterson, ’23J graduates identify with the class they entered college with — the class of ’22.

“These are my fellow students and friends that I have spent four years with at Colby,” Sullivan explained. “We have been through challenging times and formed lifelong bonds with each other. It would give me great pride in this school if Colby allowed me to walk with them in May 2022.”

’23J graduates also stressed the contributions they have made to the class of ’22 — contributions that will feel unrecognized if they are unmarked by a graduation ceremony.

“In the four semesters I completed prior to taking time off, and in the nearly three semesters since, I have contributed to the Colby community, and more specifically, the Class of 2022, in ways that have made my college career, thus far, defined by friends, classmates, and peers in the Class of 2022,” Batchelder explained. “As one of the Co-Presidents for the Class of 2022, I have acted as a representative of the class, working to ensure the best experience possible for the class as a whole. I have celebrated critical academic achievements alongside my peers, completing senior capstone projects, engaging in seminars, and embarking on a Senior Thesis to further my academic curiosities and experience.”

“Although COVID-19 has impacted the timeline on which I complete my college experience, it is upsetting to me to think that I would not have this opportunity to celebrate the achievements of my class that I have also been a part of,” she continued. “While my time at Colby may not be done, my experience on this campus, as shaped by the interactions, experiences, and community I have built with the graduating seniors is coming to an end. We have endured challenges, celebrated achievements, and helped form a community on this campus that every member of the class has contributed to — both those finishing their degree and those that opted to take extra time to do so.”

“The most frustrating aspect of this is that, through taking a semester off, we are no longer considered within the context of any class really,” Sarah Bozuwa ’23J said. “We cannot graduate with the people we weathered the pandemic with or who we went through first-year with.”

“It feels like a no-man’s land now — we cannot be nominated for awards or speaking roles in the Class of 2022, the class that knows us and who we grew with, who may want to be represented by someone with just one extra semester left,” continued Bozuwa. “Those honors would not be bestowed upon ’23J graduates in the next year because we would not be able to speak for their experience. Our experience has been with this class — we should be granted the opportunity to celebrate that.”

The other option presented to ’23J graduates is participation in the winter completion ceremony. Peterson, who attended both the spring and winter graduation ceremonies, noted that the winter ceremony did not hold the same distinction.

Faculty attendance is significantly lower than in the spring. Because it is held indoors in the relatively small Ostrove Auditorium, seating is limited.

Peterson explained that the abnormally large number of ’22J graduates made family attendance and the traditional “intimate banquet with families and mentors” impossible. With an even higher number of ’23J graduates, many worry that they will not be able to share this milestone with their loved ones.

Students also noted that President Greene’s absence from the Dec. 2021 ceremony further marked its insignificant feel.

Graduation in itself is a rite of passage, and one that is especially important at a time when so many of the anticipated milestones and celebrations, such as family reunions, birthday celebrations, and other gatherings, have been impossible.

It marks the end of a chapter: one last opportunity to come together with friends and classmates, even more important after two years of such limited opportunity to do so. It is a celebration of the achievement of completing college, which is even more deserving of recognition now than it would be under normal circumstances. The shared experience of pursuing a college education during a pandemic marked by an abrupt departure from campus, a shift to online classes, and limited gatherings and school events makes participating in an actual graduation ceremony even more treasured. There will not be another opportunity to be with peers, in this place we’ve called home, to mark this transition into life after college.

“[COVID-19] has changed so much about the fluidity of our school that the rigidity around graduation feels stark in comparison,” Bozuwa said. “Why can we not celebrate our shared experience?”

It seems a very small thing to ask the administration, but it would mean a tremendous amount to students. Allowing ’23J graduates to walk this spring would signal that Colby supports them to the end.

But by denying ’23J graduates the opportunity to walk at graduation, Colby risks the chance that these students — future alum — will leave feeling slighted, unsupported, uncelebrated, and unrecognized.

Peers in the class of ’22 and friends in other classes — both future and current alum — will not be blind to the injustice of this missed experience. Families and friends outside of Colby will feel the pain it invokes. What are the implications of this?

Colby has done a remarkable job handling the pandemic thus far, but is failing to show up and follow through to the end, when it matters most to the students themselves.

“While we missed out on a semester with our peers when we chose to take time away from Colby, we have contributed to, and have been influenced by, the class that we started our time at Colby with,” Batchelder said. “I hope that the faculty will reconsider the stance they have historically taken in order to allow members of the Class of 2023J to walk and celebrate with the rest of our class. Our college experience, as with the rest of the world, has been completely altered due to this unprecedented global pandemic that we are still living through. As such, I hope that Colby faculty and administration will reconsider extending unprecedented compromise to the student body and the policies that impact us.”

The Student Government Association (SGA) has also expressed their unanimous support of this request. On Sunday, March 13, SGA passed a motion requesting reevaluation of the administration’s decision.

“While Colby College has made valiant efforts with helping students adjust to the challenges COVID-19 has created, their inflexibility to allow seniors to walk at graduation that took one semester off because of these unprecedented circumstances is unreasonable. This motion proposes that Administration and Faculty consider an exception for these particular seniors in the graduating class as they may have taken the time off for medical, mental, and many other reasons beyond themselves,” the motion stated.

Oliver Lawrence ’23J asks the school to consider his question: “What does the school have to lose by letting us walk?” Surely it does not outweigh what they have to gain.

Students urge the administration to reconsider its position on allowing ’23J graduates to walk this spring— an action that would mean a lot to these students while having minimal or no cost to them. The benefit for both the College and its students may be hard to quantify, but is significant, and should not be overlooked.

For the College, who risks alienating students who have invested so much in a Colby undergraduate education, allowing students this opportunity would go a long way in maintaining goodwill and strengthening ties with future alumni.

Students would be deeply grateful for the chance to end their Colby chapter with the expected exclamation mark, especially in light of two years with an inordinate number of commas, hyphens, and parentheses.

~ Elsa Russell ‘23

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