By LAUREN PEACOCK
For Montclair Local

This wasn’t a typical year for Sammie Panico, a graduating senior at Montclair State University majoring in linguistics. It wasn’t a typical year for anyone.

“Being able to take classes from your bed is definitely a plus, but finishing your bachelor's degree from your bed is not the most exciting thing,” Panico said. “In the end, the fact that we had in-person graduation and got to walk across the stage made everything 10 times better.”

New Jersey’s ongoing loosening of coronavirus restrictions — there are now no limits on the sizes of gatherings, large or small — meant MSU could bring students together for graduation in a way it couldn’t for most of the pandemic.

But graduation still hasn’t been quite the normal experience. MSU is hosting 18 separate one-hour commencement events from June 7 to 12, split up by colleges at the university. 

“The pandemic has been hard on everyone, including college graduates,” Andrew Mees, a spokesperson for the school, said. “From the moment Gov. [Phil] Murphy announced last year that in-person, outdoor gatherings would be permissible, we knew it would be something we would make happen for our students”

See the schedule of commencement ceremonies

Students had said they didn’t want a virtual ceremony, Mees said, “so we developed a model that allowed us to hold in-person gatherings safely. We were one of the first and only schools in New Jersey to offer in-person ceremonies in 2020, and our students and their families were extremely happy that we were able to give them that moment.”

Students throughout the year saw a combination of remote and in-person classes, and some attended classes online only. Those who attended class in-person were kept 6 feet apart, had to wear masks and filled out COVID questionnaires before setting foot on campus — all on top of the usual stressful workload of college. 

Dani Rosenfeld, a Randolph native and senior at MSU who will graduate this summer, says online schooling didn’t only affect her education — it affected her social life as well.

“The social aspect had to be the worst part, not being able to see people for such long periods of time is not something I was used to,” Rosenfeld said. “Before the virus hit it was so much easier to meet people in your classes being in person, and online having definitely made it harder to meet new people and connect.”

Mees said the split-up graduation model followed the same basic format as a larger ceremony. He said it had some positives: “Each graduate student ceremony has a distinguished alumni speaker, which would not take place during one larger ceremony. The shorter ceremonies include the most important part — the moment when each student gets to walk across the stage and be individually recognized in front of their professors, classmates and families.”

There were about 5,200 graduates attending the various ceremonies, which occurred the same week the school announced its ninth president, Jonathan G.S. Koppell, currently the dean of Arizona State University’s Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions. 

Among Koppell’s first major tasks will be overseeing the return to mostly in-person classes. Students returning in the fall will be required to be vaccinated for coronavirus.

“So we will have a safe campus,” the university’s outgoing president, Susan A. Cole, said at an event to announce Koppell’s selection. “And one that looks the way it did in 2019.”

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, in a video announcement, congratulated the school’s graduating class.

“We know this day has been unlike any other graduation days that we have known for generations,” he said. “We are in the midst of a global pandemic that has affected every one of your lives, made the challenges you face harder, made the work even more difficult, tested you in ways that you probably never imagined you would be tested.”

Kayla Francione, a graduating senior, said she’s grateful to even have an in-person ceremony.

“I am glad we at least get to be honored in person for all of our hard work over the past years even if it is different than it would normally be. I know a lot of my friends at other schools didn't even get a ceremony in person,” Francione said.

Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
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Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
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Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
Montclair State University split up its graduation for 2021 into 18 separate ceremonies (COURTESY MONTCLAIR STATE UNIVERSITY)
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