Rowan University in Glassboro on Tuesday gave its graduates a little slice of normal during a year that was anything but normal, even if it came a couple of months later than originally planned.
The campus was filled with students clad in graduation robes and caps and parents snapping pictures under a big tent on the college green. There was a procession to Pomp and Circumstance and the ceremonial turning of the tassels by rows of graduates to mark the end of a successful college career.
But then a lot was different, too: All graduates and their guests wore masks. Chairs were set strategically apart. Hand sanitizer stations were abundant, as were signs warning everyone to maintain six feet of distance.
It was college commencement, corona style.
Rowan is among the first universities in the region to hold an in-person commencement. Most schools held virtual ceremonies in May and June and have postponed on campus gatherings until the fall or next spring. Montclair State University also is scheduled to have a series of in-person commencement ceremonies, beginning Saturday.
Nearly 150 graduates and close friends or relatives gathered on campus for the 8 a.m. ceremony, the first of 13 scheduled ceremonies over three consecutive days, with students and their guests sitting six feet apart. About 1,800 graduates — slightly more than half — were scheduled to participate in the ceremonies, with each allowed to have two guests. Staff planned to sanitize the setting between ceremonies.
“I’m very excited that Rowan was able to put together a socially distanced, COVID-free event for the students and the parents,” said Lisa Banwer, an elementary schoolteacher from Marlboro, whose son was graduating. “They pulled it off in little to no time.”
Her son, Christian Banwer, 21, who got his degree in exercise science, was fine with participating, but acknowledged: “It’s more for her.”
His mom agreed.
“I just think, as parents, you see kids grow up and this is like the final stage of their childhood,” she said.
Rowan made its plans after Gov. Phil Murphy earlier this month gave the green light for outdoor gatherings of 500 people. Many graduates didn’t have too far to travel; about 96% of Rowan’s students are Garden State residents.
The first ceremony was for graduates in the College of Science and Mathematics and the School of Health Professions. Dean Karen Magee-Sauer noted the important role many of the graduates, including nurses and psychologists, will serve as the pandemic continues.
“The graduates seated here hold the degrees and credentials to join this workforce that will make New Jersey and the nation a better place,” she told them.
Still, not being able to see graduates’ likely gleeful faces most of the time (they took off masks when they lined up to walk across the stage) was tough.
“It’s very, very, very strange,” said Peter Rattigan, associate dean for the school of health professions, who was among about a half-dozen faculty and administrators presiding over the 35-minute ceremony. “Kudos to Rowan for even trying to pull this off. I don’t think I would have had the guts to do it. It’s a daunting, daunting series of events. … There are all the safety measures that go along with any commencement. Quadruple, quintuple them for this one.”
Medical staff were on hand if emergencies arose, and Rowan has set aside Friday as a rain date if Mother Nature intervenes.
“I’m excited,” said Samantha Adams, 23, of Swedesboro, holding her mortarboard with a line from Grey’s Anatomy: We have to dance it out. That’s how we finish. “Wish it was different. Wish it was in May, but …”
Her friend McKenzie Champion, 22, of Aldine, agreed.
“I wasn’t going to come, but I had to, for the memories,” said Champion, who got her degree in health and exercise science.
Adams, who got her degree in the same field, nodded.
“We worked so hard,” she said.
Students and parents said they weren’t worried about being among several hundred people, given the safety precautions.
Some graduates said they had internships lined up. Others said they were still looking for jobs.
But Tuesday was about savoring the moment.
Yasmine Abed, 22, of Trenton, who got her degree in psychology, said she is the first in her family to graduate from college. She was glad she could mark the day with others.
“It’s the beginning of setting a good example for the rest of my family and my little cousins,” she said.