It was an occasion more than a year in the making — families and friends gathered in person to watch graduates of the UCLA class of 2020 get recognized for earning their hard-won degrees.
Though Royce Hall was only half-full this Sunday out of an abundance of caution, there was the energy of a packed house. In keeping with the specialness of a commencement — even one delayed by the pandemic — the graduates dressed up in their best clothes underneath their gowns, decorated their mortarboards and some wore colorful leis around their necks.
“I know that with this current COVID pandemic, it’s difficult to be so optimistic as uncertainty lingers within our everyday lives,” said student commencement speaker Valeria Lopez Robles, who graduated with degrees in statistics and environmental engineering. “But whenever you find yourself feeling a little bit lost, I hope you take comfort in knowing that there will always be a piece of you left in this place we used to call home.”
That joy of returning home was evident on campus as the giggles and excited chatter from the participants lining up to enter Royce Hall signaled the anticipation of the moment.
Nearly 200 class of 2020 graduates participated in the 2 p.m. ceremony, which contrasted sharply with typical thousands of graduates and guests who packed Pauley Pavilion in pre-pandemic times. The four ceremonies held Sunday were part of 30 in-person makeup commencement events scheduled through November. The events are open to bachelor’s and master’s degree recipients from UCLA’s classes of 2020 and 2021.
This group of graduates, many of whom already have a year of professional work under their belts, say they are walking less for themselves and more for their families.
“Your victories are our community’s victories, and they haven’t come easily,” said Tracy Johnson, dean of the division of life sciences in the UCLA College, as she addressed the crowd. “Savor this moment: This stage, the seat you are in, the mask you wear, the beautiful people with us today in both body and spirit.”
In addition to required facial coverings for all participants and their guests inside the venue, as well as physical distancing measures, UCLA asked audience members to refrain from making loud verbal noises in an effort to curb airborne particles inside.
Despite the different tenor of this ceremony, students were simply happy to be back on campus and seeing old friends.
“I didn’t get to do it with my friends before, so that was the most important thing,” said Jennifer Wong, who graduated with a degree in economics and minor in film. Wong was there with her UCLA roommate and friend, Jeanette Gurdzhyan, a communication and accounting major. The two still room together, now in Los Angeles where they both have jobs.
For Melissa Isabel Navarro, a sociology major who danced across the stage waving the flag from El Salvador, participating in the in-person ceremony was about sharing this moment with her family, especially her two young nephews in the audience.
“It’s a cool experience because now I can help them pave their way to try to get into college, because you don’t always get the help. So I’m just happy to be a resource for them,” said Navarro, a first-generation college student whose parents are immigrants from El Salvador. “I felt it was necessary and right to rep them on that stage.”
One thing many graduates had in common was their support for each other. Jacob Butchko, an economics major, looked relieved as he exited the stage. “I’m proud of everybody for being able to graduate and actually have a ceremony,” said Butchko, who got a loud applause when walking across the stage. “I have some more fans than I thought.”
That spirit of camaraderie presented itself for Cornesha Hunter, a biology major, who despite only having a cousin and friend in the audience was met with enough applause to fill Royce Hall. Hunter said the UCLA experience has been a journey she’s grateful for. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears, literally. It definitely was a lot of being humbled, a lot of enlightenment, a lot of sacrifice and discipline and time management,” she said.
When asked about her cheering squad, Hunter says what almost every graduate can likely relate to.
“I’ve got my village with me, and that’s all that matters.”