Fredonia 2021 graduates savor in-person Commencement ‘stage walks’
Video to be released on university website at 10 a.m. on Saturday, May 15
It was staged in a different venue without packed crowds that the coronavirus had eliminated from in-person events everywhere, but that didn’t deter SUNY Fredonia from creating a memorable in-person Commencement experience to celebrate the achievements of members of the Class of 2021.
Students completing undergraduate and graduate degree programs were given the opportunity to experience the “walk” – in this case crossing the stage in the more intimate King Concert Hall decorated with balloons and flowers – much like they would have done on a raised platform in the cavernous Steele Hall Fieldhouse, site of Commencement for decades. These ceremonial walks were held over nearly 20 hours across four days.
Key principals of Fredonia commencements recognized these soon-to-be-minted graduates. President Stephen H. Kolison Jr., in his first year at Fredonia, acknowledged each graduate and engaged in the ubiquitous elbow bump that supplanted traditional handshakes.
Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Kevin Kearns, Vice President for Enrollment and Student Services Cedric Howard, Interim Vice President for University Advancement Betty Gossett and Vice President for Finance and Administration Michael Metzger placed diploma covers into the hands of students on alternating days. Distinguished Service Professor Jack Croxton and Associate Provost Judith Horowitz shared name reader duties.
“I think it went well; the feedback that we received was very positive. The student excitement was a reflection of how well it was received,” reported Commencement Committee Co-chair Denise Szalkowski.
Kolison congratulates graduates
Ms. Szalkowski, who has served on the Commencement Committee since she was appointed assistant to the president 19 years ago, applauded President Kolison for arranging to be a part of nearly 450 individual stage walks. “He was there for over 19 hours total, recognizing every student who participated in a stage walk; he bumped elbows, congratulated each one of them and was photographed with them,” Szalkowski said.
“Being his first Commencement, it was a real honor for him to be able to personally congratulate every student who walked the stage in King,” said Szalkowski, who co-chaired the committee with Raleigh Hawk.
A grand total of 443 students – 410 undergraduates and 33 graduate students attired in the traditional cap and gown – were welcomed by greeters who outlined the Commencement protocol, while “Pomp and Circumstance” played softly in the background.
What’s noteworthy with this year’s program, compared to traditional ceremonies, was the amount of time a graduate is the center of attention, according to Szalkowski. “Each student had more time to walk across the stage, to be formally recognized and photographed,” she said. “It was more personal, a little bit more intimate.”
Message boards containing photographs and greetings or congratulations from family members were placed along the first two rows of balcony seats, so they could be viewed by students as they walked to the stage.
All ceremonial walks were recorded by the Marketing and Communications Department, led by Jeff Woodard. James Gibbons, the department’s videographer/editor, employed his talent to ensure professionally recorded walks of the highest quality that will become part of a commencement video to be released on the Fredonia website on Saturday, May 15, at 10 a.m., Szalkowski noted.
Island Photography was on duty to photograph each graduate with Kolison on stage and take individual formal portraits.
“The goal of the Commencement Committee was to honor this year’s class and to try to find a way to get some sort of in-person recognition while still following COVID safety guidelines,” said Mr. Hawk, who serves as acting ticketing and customer service manager at Rockefeller Arts Center. “We didn’t know what 2021 was going to bring, but the thought of doing an in-person stage walk really started in November , when [COVID infection rates] were starting to spike.”
Coordinating all stage walk elements was definitely challenging, Hawk acknowledged, “but I’m so happy to see the enthusiastic responses from those who participated. I had quite a few students that told me how excited they were to have some sort of in-person recognition, and I’m so glad that it was received positively.”
In fact, numerous students reached out to Hawk to personally thank him and his staff for providing the experience of walking across the stage, he said.
Szalkowski attributes the success of the event to the good work of the Commencement Committee, several volunteers and Eric Hadley, operations manager and technical director of Rockefeller Arts Center. Many of the 15 volunteers who assisted were from Enrollment and Student Services, Academic Affairs and Alumni Affairs.
"It was the Commencement Committee members and volunteers who made the walks extra special for Fredonia graduates. Even an emeritus member returned to campus to volunteer her time. From what I could tell, the volunteers and committee members enjoyed their time at those walks as much as the graduates," Szalkowski said.
‘Everyone was so upbeat’
“I’ve had students tell me they felt energy from the volunteers that really elevated their experience, and that everyone was so upbeat and excited about sharing the day with the students,” Hawk remarked. Students arriving in small groups gathered in the first few rows to cheer their friends during their stage walks.
“Nobody was sitting at any time when someone was walking across the stage; they were cheering as loudly as they could because this was the student’s special moment,” Hawk explained. “Even if we did not have a full hall of spectators we wanted the students to know that the committee really applauds their accomplishments!”
“Personally, for me, it was great to see students that I have worked with in the ticket office walk across that stage,” Hawk reflected.
The Commencement Committee began serious discussions to develop ideas for some kind of ceremony near the end of 2020, but a subsequent uptick in positive COVID-19 cases forced the committee to pull back on those plans, Szalkowski recalled, severely diminishing hopes that a traditional Commencement could be held. The arrival of coronavirus vaccines and lower positivity rates ultimately made it feasible to put into place a stage walk proposal, with a limited number of students at any given time and other safety guidelines in place.
To participate, resident students had to undergo weekly surveillance pool testing, while those attending classes remotely had to submit a negative PCR test result. The number of students gathering at one time was limited, and, of course, everyone wore facial masks.
Video preserves the experience
Graduates and their family members can relive these special moments in a Commencement video, created by Mr. Gibbons, that includes many traditional elements of a Fredonia graduation that were largely recorded at various campus locations during the spring semester.
In the nearly 2:50 video, Kolison offers his first remarks to a Fredonia graduating class. Dr. Thomas J. Quatroche Jr., who is president and CEO of Erie County Medical Center and a Fredonia alumnus, delivers the keynote address. Dr. Kearns is the emcee.
Senior Class President Lylens Lubin delivers a speech to his fellow classmates. Opening reflections are offered by Bradley Brown and Thomas Sheffield, while closing reflections are given by Benjamin Farley and Braelin Scott.
“The Star-Spangled Banner” is sung by Grace Mingoea, accompanied by pianist William Rich. Faculty Marshals Christine Givner, Ted Schwalbe and Melinda Wendell, along with Mace Bearer Distinguished Service Professor H. Joseph Straight and Student Marshals Carol Loja and Nicole Cullen, are introduced.
The choral work, “Good News!” is also presented by the Fredonia Chamber Choir, directed by Dr. Vernon Huff, with the recording produced by Fredonia Sound Recording Technology major and graduating senior Ashley Linton.
Submitted photographs of students who did not participate in the Commencement walk have been placed within the stage walk segment in the video.
Message boards, created by Marketing and Communications staff, featured congratulatory wishes submitted by family members and photographs of the graduate taken in happy times or at family events.
During the design/layout process, Communications Designer Erin Ehman said she was overwhelmed by the sentiment behind the content that family members submitted for the messages. “Inside jokes, words of wisdom, sincere congratulations and best wishes for the future had me teary-eyed while reading them,” Ms. Ehman shared. “Creating the message boards to help parents be a part of the Commencement ceremony, and the graduates feel the presence of their loved ones brought me great joy to be a part of their celebration.”
A print copy of the official Commencement program will be mailed to every graduate.
“We missed the families, the School of Music, having everybody in one space, but considering the challenges that we were facing at the time, for the safety of our students and staff, this was the best alternative that we could offer,” Szalkowski noted, “but we look forward to holding a traditional ceremony going forward for future classes.”