Lander University confers degrees to May 2020 graduates
Saturday, Dec 12, 2020
Lander graduate
It isn’t commencement without a selfie. A Lander University business administration graduate from the May Class of 2020 posed on campus before one of the two ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 12, on the Lander campus. Photo by Deb Crenshaw-Nygro

The pomp and circumstance delayed for Lander University’s May 2020 graduates became a much-deserved reality on Saturday, Dec. 12, at Finis Horne Arena.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which closed college and university campuses in March, halted the usual academic celebrations nationwide, including those at Lander. But the University sought and received permission from the State of South Carolina to honor May graduates at its 161st Commencement ceremony.

To keep the number of graduates, employees and guests in the arena at safe levels, the ceremonies were split into morning and afternoon programs, with three academic colleges per program. Each ceremony, which limited graduates to four guests, was conducted in accordance with public health and government guidelines, including social distancing and mask requirements, as well as temperature screenings for all participants and attendees. Approximately 185 graduates of the 337-member May 2020 commencement class attended the events.

Guest speaker Dr. Lillian Craton, a Lander professor of English and director of The Honors College, told graduates that being “asked to speak to the May 2020 graduating class at the most anticipated commencement ceremony in Lander history – is incredibly special.”

For the graduates, their day to shine finally had arrived.

Among them, Lander basketball player Elijah Alston, 22, said the day was “for the experience to walk across the stage as a college graduate.”

Since returning home to Brunswick, Ga., in March, Alston has been employed as a hospital screener, restaurant server and retail employee while working on his application to attend medical school. Although none of his immediate family and friends has become ill with COVID-19, Alston said, “I know of people who have been sick. The pandemic, if anything, has strengthened my passion to become a doctor.”

Already on the front lines of medical care is nursing graduate Emma Jetty, who began working as an intensive care unit nurse in July. “The Covid-19 cases for the counties we serve were increasing at rapid rates,” said Jetty, 22, of Effort, Pa. “My nights at work were spent caring almost exclusively for the sickest Covid-19 patients, and to say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement.”

Since then, Jetty said she has become “more confident in caring for these complex patients and have seen myself grow as a nurse in the face of such immense adversity.”

Although “I work intimately with the virus, I cannot help but be humbled and so grateful for my role in healthcare,” she said.

It is the art of juggling so many tasks, as Alston and Jetty are doing, that is central to a college education, said Craton.

“Juggling is such an under-appreciated art form. Adults do it constantly, and we have to do it well. At Lander, you juggled, and you’re going to need that,” she said. “You learn which balls will bounce and which balls will shatter. Learning to fail is a key part of learning to succeed."

College isn’t about the information that professors ask students to learn, Craton said.

Instead, “it was about the act of learning. The art of learning, the science of it. It was about you figuring out how your brain works, how it absorbs new things and how it performs under different types of pressure. The facts that you learned at Lander will help you get started in the next stage of life, but those facts were not your education,” she said.

“Your education was about cultivating your curiosity, comprehension, and analysis. It was about building up your courage to try the big, hard, complicated things that life demands,” Craton said.

Katlyn Coker, 22, of Pelzer, is a new teacher at Hodges Elementary School where she is helping fourth-grade students navigate their studies safely. “The rewards of this job are endless. Most importantly, this job has rewarded me with being a part of so many lives,” she said. “One of my favorite parts of my job is seeing a student learn something new or make the connections in their mind. I love seeing the ‘spark’ and knowing that I contributed to it.”

Rather than letting fear prevent her from achieving her goals, Coker said that “finding such a great job during a pandemic makes me feel like I can accomplish anything. Everything was there to get in my way, but somehow I’m in a completely different spot than I was at the beginning of the year.”

That sentiment is shared by Amira Abdelwahab, 22, a political science graduate who is working as an intern for U.S. Sen. Tim Scott. She saw her career goals of moving to Washington, D.C., and working on Capitol Hill upended by the uncertainty of the pandemic.

“I discovered that law school was actually a better fit for what I wanted to do and how I wanted to use my political science degree. I hadn’t considered this path during my time at Lander because there were just too many options and paths I could have taken,” said Abdelwahab, who plans to attend law school in the fall. “The pandemic took one of those away … and forced me to look elsewhere.”

The new graduates have some advice for the Class of 2021.

“Take time to figure out what you want. It’s easy to get caught up in enjoying your major and the classes you take, but it’s not always going to be easy to find a job in that specific field,” said Abdelwahab. “Be open to change. Finding out what you don’t want to do is just as important as finding out what you do want to do.”

Jetty encourages Lander seniors to savor their last few months on campus. “Find time to rejoice in these ‘lasts’ as many of those moments pass quickly and usually without warning. With COVID-19 cases on the rise again, I emphasize the fact that their final months at Lander are not promised and the ending they have imagined,” she said. “Four years may change overnight as it did for the May Class of 2020.”

Lander will confer degrees to its Fall 2020 graduates during ceremonies to be held on Tuesday, Dec. 15, at Finis Horne Arena.


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