Finally, a Real Graduation Ceremony

Hilary Bentman, Director of Social Media
Two students in grad cords and stoles pose next to the Pride lion statues while holding their grad caps
Part of the so-called Covid class, Kennedy Shaw (left) and Donya Moore (right) are thrilled to finally have the full pomp and circumstance of an in-person graduation.

It was not what college was supposed to be like.

But there they were, first-year students, mostly stuck at home taking classes online, as the world was still in the throes of the Covid-19 pandemic.

It was fall 2020, and the Widener Class of 2024 was scattered.

Mini fridge with snacks on top and a sign that reads "Class of 2024. Widener Bound. Congrats Kristoff"
A mini fridge was part of Kristoff Bien-Aime's at-home setup his first year while taking classes remotely.

In the Poconos, robotics engineering major Kristoff Bien-Aime attended his online classes from his basement. His parents had set up a desk and mini fridge and stocked it with snacks to replicate a small piece of the college experience.

In Alabama, psychology major Kennedy Shaw was in her living room, more than 800 miles from Widener’s campus. Still, she was determined to make the best of the situation, even dressing up for the first day of class despite it being on Zoom.

And in Hershey, sport and event management major Donya Moore would occasionally take her classes from ZooAmerica at Hershey Park, where she worked the cash register. Her hometown zoo had opened during the pandemic to admit visitors.

It was a tough year, to say the least. But members of the Class of 2024 – the so-called Covid class – developed incredible resilience that first year, learning to adapt and appreciate the small things – all lessons that have guided them through Widener and beyond.

When they finally arrived on campus for their sophomore year, many 2024 students threw themselves into their college lives, determined to meet people, get involved, experience as much as they could, and in some ways, make up for the past year.

And this week they will finally get what most missed out on four years ago – a true blue, in-person commencement ceremony, with all the pomp and circumstance they deserve.

“We are thrilled to be able to finally give these students that experience of crossing the stage in front of their family, friends, classmates, educators, and mentors,” said Kim Robinson, executive director of Student Success and Retention. “This class had an atypical start, but from day one, we worked diligently to support them and help them feel like they belonged here. It’s exciting to see their dreams fulfilled.”

Lost & Found

The Covid class graduated high school a few short months after the pandemic broke out, which pushed their classes online and canceled seminal senior moments like proms and class trips.

Kennedy Shaw poses for a photo while wearing a yellow shirt.
Determined to make the best of the situation, Kennedy Shaw dressed up for the first day of class despite it being on Zoom.

It was a devastating blow for many. Shaw had bought her prom dress just days before the shutdown. She never wore it.

Many high schools were determined to give their seniors some semblance of a graduation ceremony, though it was usually highly modified and socially distanced.

Hearing that their first year at Widener would begin remotely was a disappointment for members of the Class of 2024, but many tried to make the best of it and to connect to their new school and classmates.

“But it still felt like I was in high school,” said Judah Woodard, a marketing major from Delaware.

For its part, the university got innovative, trying to create meaningful experiences for students while also supporting them through such a difficult time.

“Meeting people was definitely hard, but I set a rule for myself: never have your camera off. I went to a lot of events. Widener was really good at putting out a lot of content.” — Kristoff Bien-Aime

A member of the Widener Marching Band, Bien-Aime missed playing his saxophone with his bandmates. But the band, under the direction of Iain Moyer, still found a way to create performances and recordings. Bien-Aime was even given marching homework, which he did in his backyard, to keep up his skills.

Miranda Yanzuk, an accounting major from New Jersey, was, despite the virtual nature of her first year, determined to get involved.

“I wanted a better social life. I wanted to transform that part of myself,” said Yanzuk, who joined Pride Activities Council and attended events. “I had this desire to be surrounded by people and still have connections.”

Sophomore Imposter Syndrome

When their sophomore year arrived, Widener returned to in-person learning. Shaw finally stepped foot on campus – her first time ever, having never even visited.

“It was a leap of faith, but I am grateful for that leap because Widener has been great,” she said.

But like many of her classmates, she felt like a freshman. She had no idea where anything was located and the people she had met over Zoom felt like strangers.

“Now that I was on campus, how do I make friends? How do I be successful in my classes? You’re new, you’ve got to figure out where you fit, where you belong,” said Shaw.

Shaw was part of the Pride Mentor program, and her mentor, an older Widener student, offered a lot of support. Shaw soon joined Student Government Association, the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), became a C.R.E.W. orientation leader, a leader in the Center for Civic & Global Engagement, and, inspired by her own experience, a Pride Mentor herself.

Seven members of Kappa Alpha Psi pose next to the Pride lion statues.
Judah Woodard (back row left) became a chartering member of Widener’s Rho Phi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.

For Woodard, his goal sophomore year was “to meet people, make friends here, hang out and be a regular college student. I appreciate myself for putting myself out there.”

And he did. Woodard eventually became a resident assistant and Pride Mentor, joined Black Men United, Black Student Union, men’s rugby, and became a chartering member of Widener’s Rho Phi Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc.

“Widener has helped me put my foot out there, promoting me to be a leader. Widener has allowed me to spread my wings and develop those skills. I’m not sure if I didn’t go here if I could speak in front of people or interact with them.” — Judah Woodard

Bien-Aime and Yanzuk had an even stranger start to sophomore year, jumping right into the co-op program for their respective majors and not taking classes on campus.

But Bien-Aime says “sophomore year was my best year here. I found my niche the first week.”

Five saxophone players in the Widener Marching Band performing on a football field
Kristoff Bien-Aime (center) plays saxophone in the Widener Marching Band.

Moore also found her way through hands-on experiences. 

She embarked on a series of internships, including with Live Nation Entertainment, taking on various roles at concerts and sporting events in Philadelphia. 

After graduation, she’ll work for Live Nation at the Mann Center as an assistant production manager.

“Covid turned me around. In high school I was not interested in being involved,” said Moore. “Losing that year, I said to myself ‘maybe I’m doing this wrong.’”

At Widener, she joined NCNW, became a Pride Mentor, and a resident assistant, always choosing to serve in a first-year residence hall. Driven by her Covid year, she was determined to help ensure new students had fun on campus.

Pomp & Circumstance

Donya Moore and President Robertson standing in front of a Widener backdrop
Donya Moore (right) and President Stacey Robertson at the 2023 Alumni Awards, where Moore received the John L. Geoghegan Student Citizenship Award.

The graduates of the Class of 2024 are excited and even a bit overwhelmed to finally get that traditional, in-person commencement ceremony, where they’ll sit shoulder-to-shoulder with friends and classmates, as family and loved ones watch and cheer them on.

“This will be the first time I get to walk in front of people,” said Woodard. “To have family there, friends around me… I know how hard I worked all my years here. I’m just proud to say I stuck through regardless.”

These graduates are not only excited for themselves, but for their families, as well, who were also robbed of that milestone moment four years ago.

“It’s a treat for me, but I hope they can also find closure in it,” said Yanzuk.

And this is not the only graduation ceremony some of these students can look forward to.

Seven students pose in the University Center Atrium surrounded by red, white, and black balloons
Miranda Yanzuk (bottom right) became involved in Pride Activities Council, eventually serving as president.

Yanzuk, Bien-Aime, and Woodard are all part of a Widener 4+1 program and will get a chance to cross the stage in 2025 when they earn their respective master’s degrees.

“I’m super thankful for the community here. I could not be who I am mentally or physically without the people I’ve met,” said Bien-Aime.

Likewise, Shaw has more graduation ceremonies ahead of her. After Widener, she will attend Vanderbilt University for a master’s in biomedical sciences and is eying medical school.

“There are amazing people here. I felt like I belonged here,” said Shaw. “I’ve gained so many connections and friendships. Widener was where I was meant to be.”

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