Graduates maintain a six-foot distance between one another during their commencement ceremony in the Times Union Center in Albany, New York. (Photo courtesy of Siena College)

Siena, St. Bonaventure Graduate 1,400+ Students – in Person

Jocelyn Thomas Around the Province

What a difference a year makes! Despite some pandemic-related modifications and continuing safety protocols, more than 1,400 students of the class of 2021 at two Holy Name Province-sponsored colleges were able to graduate in person. Students, faculty, and friars at Siena College in Albany, New York, and St. Bonaventure University in Allegany, New York, collectively agreed that it was life-giving and uplifting to be able to hold commencement activities, events, and ceremonies in person again. In spring 2020, because of the raging COVID-19 pandemic, the commencements of both schools had been conducted on online virtual platforms. But this year, the pomp, ceremony, and festivities of graduation returned to a somewhat state of normalcy at both colleges.

St. Bonaventure University Festivities
On May 15, St. Bonaventure University presented degrees and advanced certificates to more than 600 students during its 161st commencement exercises in Allegany, New York.

Because of COVID-19 restrictions, the university divided the commencement into six separate ceremonies held throughout the course of the day, beginning with graduate school students at 9:30 a.m. and concluding with the School of Health Professions at 3:45 p.m.

“I cannot express enough my gratitude to you and your families for all you have done through the pandemic to persevere and persist through the greatest challenge to the university in anyone’s memory,” Joseph Zimmer, provost and acting president, told the students.

Students each were allowed two guests who escorted them to the stage in the Richter Center to accept their diploma from Zimmer.

The traditional slate of Commencement Week events was held Wednesday through Saturday and was highlighted by Thursday’s 25th annual Candlelight Ceremony inducting the students into the National Alumni Association, and Friday afternoon’s Baccalaureate Mass. The student speaker was featured at the Candlelight Ceremony rather than the traditional address at Saturday’s commencement ceremonies.

baccalaureate Mass

Members of the university ministry team extend their hands in blessing during the baccalaureate Mass. (Photo courtesy of St. Bonaventure University)

All of the events and commencement ceremonies were live-streamed for people unable to attend. The archived recordings are available online.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) provided a video message congratulating the graduates and acknowledging the “tragic loss” of Dennis DePerro, the SBU president who died of COVID-19 on March 1.

Nearly 400 students earned bachelor’s degrees, while 238 received master’s degrees or advanced certificates.

The format of commencement weekend was welcomed by students after so much of campus life during the last year had been virtual through computers, iPads, and smartphones.

“Though this year’s commencement was different than most years – with distances and restrictions – I think it turned out to be a good experience for all,” said SBU Chaplain Gregory Jakubowicz, OFM, who gave the invocation at each of the six graduation ceremonies. “The families did a wonderful job of navigating the restrictions,” he added.

Videos and photo galleries of the commencement ceremonies can be found on the SBU website.

During the commencement season, St. Bonaventure held several affiliated events. On May 18, the university recognized five staff members with Presidential Staff Excellence awards, and on May 14, more than 30 SBU students who earned graduate and undergraduate degrees this year were inducted into the university’s Xi Nu chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society in education, during a virtual ceremony.

Siena friars who attended the 2021 Baccalaureate Mass. (Photo courtesy of Siena College)

Siena College Ceremonies
Two weeks later in Albany, New York, Siena College held a safe and memorable commencement ceremony experience for its graduates on the weekend of May 29.

With physical distancing and masking still in force, Siena’s undergraduate class of 2021 celebrated its achievements with an in-person commencement ceremony on May 30 at the Times Union Center in downtown Albany, approximately five miles from campus. The commencement was held two weeks later than usual because the semester started in February, rather than January, delaying the ceremony.

Siena awarded 818 bachelor’s degrees to students, who were allowed to remove their masks and fist bump Siena President Chris Gibson – a 1986 Siena graduate – as they crossed the stage.

“We felt very strongly that the entire class of 2021 should graduate together and in-person after this long pandemic year,” said Gibson. “We thank our Office of the Provost and Academic Affairs for their tireless work to plan the weekend’s activities.”

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ph.D., gave a virtual address and received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from the college.

A total of 69 graduate degree recipients participated in Siena’s s first-ever master’s degree ceremony the day before on the academic quad on campus – in rain and record cold temperature for that date, according to the college’s website.

“It was a joyful commencement weekend,” said Larry Anderson, OFM, the college chaplain who celebrated the baccalaureate Mass and led several senior events before graduation weekend – including a spiritual hike at Sleeping Beauty Mountain in Lake George and a retreat.

“Students seemed very grateful to be able to get together,” said Larry, “especially because the class of 2020 was not able to have their graduation in person. We’re hoping that in the fall, all students and staff will have been vaccinated and we can have classes on campus. Summer school classes will be held online, the same as last year.”

This year’s baccalaureate Mass was held outside and allowed only a limited number of attendees. Roughly 580 people attended, according to Larry – which included graduating seniors and their parents. Most years, Mass attendance in the ARC is close to 1,400.

Mark Reamer, OFM, Siena’s vice president of mission, offered the prayer at the graduation ceremonies.

Videos of Siena’s graduation ceremony as well as its Baccalaureate Mass and awards ceremony can be found on the college website.

To highlight the Franciscan culture of the campus, Siena’s Admissions Office posted on the college website in April information about the definition of Franciscan values.

Several weeks later, the college posted an article about a creative way that the Franciscan presence on campus was featured. Roberto Tito Serrano, OFM, designed posters showing friar images in parodies of well-known movies. Among the friars pictured were Larry Anderson, Gregory Gebbia, OFM, Sean O’Brien, OFM, and Robert Sandoz, OFM.

“When students and alumni look back on their Siena experiences, more often than not, friars are part of the stories,” according to the article. “The Franciscan presence on campus is rooted in Siena’s mission to educate the mind, body, and spirit. But with social distancing protocols in place, Fr. Tito wanted to figure out a way to continue to engage and connect with the student body.”

— Jocelyn Thomas is the director of communications for Holy Name Province.