In-person commencement ceremonies reunite students

by Josh Petrofsky and Jayne Yutig

The College of Education and College of Sciences at San Diego State kicked off three days of historic in-person commencement ceremonies at Petco Park on May 25, marking the first commencements to be held in-person by the university in two years.

An estimated six thousand graduates, friends and family were in attendance for the first of seven ceremonies to be held through Thursday. 

The event was one of joy and celebration for everyone in attendance as the class of 2020 and class of 2021 came together to be recognized for their academic achievements.

College of Sciences

The program started with a video package highlighting the many activities that go on at SDSU. The montage included footage from science labs, collegiate sports, Aztec Nights and general socializing around the campus. It was especially moving as the video showed everyone together in a pre-pandemic world.

Petco Park reached a capacity of approximately 5,000 attendees for the commencement with families spread throughout the seats around the baseball diamond. 

The Dean of the College of Sciences, Jeffrey T. Roberts began the ceremony. There was uproarious applause as the Dean began his speech. During the National Anthem, a plane flew overhead that read “Congrats Serenity.”

After the National Anthem, a short pre-recorded speech was played acknowledging the land featuring Kumeyaay Tribal Liaison Jacob Alvarado Waipuk. He spoke about acknowledging the land that the Kumeyaay people had lived on for generations that now makes up the SDSU campus.

Dean Roberts began speaking again after the video. He spoke about the history of SDSU graduation, noting that this was the 122nd graduation dating back to 1899. He said he was very proud of the student’s and faculty’s perseverance throughout the past 18 months, quoting a SDSU commencement address given by former President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

“No country can possibly move ahead, no free society can possibly be sustained unless it has an educated citizenry who’s qualities of mind and heart permit it to take part in a complicated ad increasingly sophisticated decisions that fall not only on the President and on the Congress, but on all the citizens who exercise the ultimate power,” Roberts said.

He went on to ask that the graduates recognize that today’s problems are born of science and that they should use their degrees not only to better themselves but to better the world around them through science. Roberts said that a degree in science comes with the obligation to make good decisions for society that are grounded in scientific fact.

After a recognition of selected SDSU staff and alumni, SDSU President Adela de la Torre was up next to speak. She gave the same speech that she gave earlier in the day at the College of Education commencement ceremony.

Next, SDSU Provost and Senior Vice President Salvador Hector Ochoa  led the crowd in a celebration of the armed services members in attendance. After that was a moment of silence for all the SDSU community members we lost in the last two years in addition to the countless lives that have been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The conferral of the Doctorate, Masters and Bachelors degrees was up next. Alexandra Strong was highlighted as the outstanding graduating senior of the College of Sciences. She spoke for her classmates in bidding farewell to SDSU. After her speech was the moving of the tassels. The crowd in attendance roared in celebration.

A quick recognition of an outstanding student and faculty member for each major was held. Individual recognition followed as members of both graduating classes walked across the stage to be recognized.

As the graduates exited the ceremony and took their first steps into the rest of their lives, there was a buzz in the air. Sajjad Naseri, a Master of Homeland Security graduate, was proud to be the first member of his family to achieve this level of education.

“This is the biggest dream of my life,” Naseri said. “I am honored to be here and to celebrate my accomplishments.”

Biology major Madison McGath said she felt really good about finally getting to reunite with her classmates after a year and a half of distance learning.

“I think it feels really good, because to see like all of your classmates through a computer screen or a lot of classmates don’t turn on their cameras,” McGath said. “You kind of just sit there and watch the professor, so it was good to see familiar faces from classes before from when I was a lower undergraduate so I’m happy that we got to do this today.”

Jayne Yutig

College of Education

President Adela de la Torre addressed the graduating classes of 2020-2021, the first commencement address delivered in-person to a graduating class since 2019. 

Commencement was held virtually in 2020 and those graduates were invited to this year’s ceremonies, combining the two graduating classes for the event.  

“Today’s graduation is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the 124-year history of our university,” de la Torre said. “You’ve achieved success during one of the most difficult periods in recent memory.”

Liberal studies graduate Miguel Najera attended Tuesday’s ceremony with his family and young daughter. Najera said his Mexican American heritage motivated him to pursue higher education and set a new bar for himself and those like him.

“I feel really proud and I feel like I set a good example for my little girl, for my family,” Najera said.

Najera said Tuesday’s ceremony and the joy surrounding it was a relief after a year and a half of challenges and uncertainty. “It’s a breath of fresh air,” Najera said. “It was tough. But at the end of the day it was worth it.”

The commencement included some traditions seen before like the national anthem and speeches from university leaders. The traditional handshakes were absent from the commencement ceremonies, pinning ceremonies and student processional.

Instead, graduates sat together in the stands at the home of the Padres. In place of being handed their diplomas, graduates were displayed on the famous Padres jumbotron walking across the stage along with their name and degree.

 Families and graduates enjoyed famous ballpark concessions like beer and pretzels during the ceremony. The energy and backdrop of the ballpark and Downtown San Diego was inescapable and served as focal points for the graduates in the stands.

“It felt really special,” education graduate Loren Francia said. “Being able to not only walk, but also do it in Petco Park is very amazing. I’m very grateful.” 

Graduates from the College of Education walked across the stage on the baseball field and earned bachelor’s, masters and doctoral degrees. 

Thuan Dinh Nguyen was conferred by de la Torre with an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters for his decades of service in education and supporting underserved communities through philanthropy. 

“Public education has been the cornerstone of my life since escaping Vietnam as a refugee when I was 8 years old,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen commended the graduates for pursuing education as a profession. 

“The burden you carry will be immense, but the impact you will have will be profound and rewarding,” Nguyen said.

Tuesday’s ceremony marked a milestone in the university’s history as progress continues to be made in vaccinations and more in-person events continue to return. The two commencement ceremonies that took place are just two of the seven that took place over the week. 

What can sometimes be two hours of sitting in the hot sun waiting for one’s name to be called has turned into a reunion for everybody who had been apart for far too long. 

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