Tigerville, SC -- North Greenville University (NGU) on Saturday, October 17, gave its Class of 2020 graduates a little slice of normal during a year that was anything but normal, even if it came a few months later than originally planned.
NGU is among the first universities in the region to hold an in-person commencement. Most schools held virtual ceremonies in May and June and have postponed on-campus gatherings until December or next spring.
Alumni and students participating in homecoming activities filled the campus, as well as graduates clad in graduation robes and caps and parents snapping pictures around the school's football stadium. There was a procession to Pomp and Circumstance and the tassels' ceremonial turning to mark the end of a successful college career.
But then a lot was different, too. All graduates and their guests wore masks. The chairs were placed strategically apart. Hand sanitizer stations were abundant, as were signs asking everyone to maintain six feet of distance.
"Congratulations to each of you for achieving this academic milestone. It is our prayer that today's commencement will also be a commissioning service, as we send you out to be transformational leaders for church and society," said NGU President Dr. Gene C. Fant, Jr.
In May, members of the Class of 2020 were given an opportunity to pick-up their regalia and diploma at a Drive-Thru Pick-Up event hosted by the Office of Student Services. Graduates were also given three options to experience a college graduation ceremony. Nearly 80 graduates of the 276 Class of 2020 and close friends or relatives gathered in Younts Stadium on campus for the 10 a.m. outdoor ceremony.
"The October event is meant to give our spring 2020 graduating class a special opportunity to be recognized for their great achievement. This is also homecoming weekend, and this event adds to the celebratory environment as we welcome both current and prior-year students," said Vice President for Student Services Rachael Russiaky. "The commencement ceremony felt and looked different due to COVID-19 guidelines that we have in place, but we are excited about this opportunity to celebrate with this graduating class."
The May commencement speaker, André Kennebrew, senior principal program lead for the Leadership Development Program at Chick-fil-A, Inc., was the keynote.
Before the university officially conferred degrees, Kennebrew gave the graduates one last final exam.
He asked them to stand up, turn around, and acknowledge a professor or staff member in the audience who helped them reach this day of celebration. He asked them to recognize a classmate with whom they have built a life-long relationship. And, with his final question, he asked if they would answer the phone should Dr. Fant or a staff member contact them about donating to the school.
"You should answer, yes, to all of these questions," Kennebrew said.
In his address, he referenced 2 Timothy 2:1-2 when Paul wrote to Timothy, during a transition time in Timothy's ministry and life, three things that Kennebrew shared with the graduates.
"As transformational leaders, you [graduates] will need to be strong in your relationship with Christ, faithful in your daily walk, and teach-able. Take what you have learned and teach it to others," he said.
"Walk off this field today, celebrate your success, and be intentional about being a leader and transforming our world, which can only be done through the spirit of Jesus Christ," he said.
Meredith Rebekah Queen from Greenville is one member of the Class of 2020 who will be taking what she has learned to teach others.
Queen, a current kindergarten teacher's assistant at Southside Christian School in Greenville, graduated summa cum laude with her bachelor's degree in elementary education. She said she was disappointed when she found out that her commencement had to be postponed.
She said, "I am grateful that I was able to pick up my diploma, but it was still hard and discouraging when May 1 arrived, and I was not able to walk across the stage and pick up my diploma in person." She was also grateful that her parents, grandparents, and sister could attend to celebrate with her.
Queen believes that God called her to be a teacher from a very young age.
"Growing up, I used to pull out stuffed animals and play school with them. I never wanted to be anything but a teacher. God allowed me to share his love with my students by teaching them," she said.
Even though her students could not attend her commencement ceremony, Queen still wanted to include them.
"I had my students sign their name on [notebook] paper, and I glued it to my hat. I wanted to include them on my hat because I felt like it was a way for them to be with me at graduation. They are a special part of my life, and I wanted them to be a part of the celebration."
When asked if NGU prepared her for her career in education. Queen said that the education department's knowledgeable professors want to equip its graduates for teaching.
"They want to see you succeed as a teacher. They offer many practical things in the program that gets you ready for your own classroom. Education is a tough job, but the education department at NGU truly does equip you," Queen said.
Members of the Class of 2020 who could not participate in the homecoming commencement have deferred to participating in December or next spring.
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