Masks muffled the collective sighs of relief at MTSU‘s fall 2020 commencement ceremonies Saturday, Nov. 21, when nearly 2,100 graduates and their loved ones realized that this part of 2020, at least, was finally complete.
Nothing could silence their shouts of celebration, though, as they wreaked a bit of happy havoc outdoors in the sunshine, and later, the evening air, in Floyd Stadium.
“I know that many of you would not have chosen to persevere through an academic year with so many unknowns that posed so many changes to your routine,” university President Sidney A. McPhee told the merry, masked graduates at the day’s three commencement ceremonies.
“Whether you struggled, discovered a new appreciation for the possibilities of online learning, added or dropped a class, or surprised yourself by thriving, I know none of this was easy. That is why I’m so grateful that you accepted the challenge with the determination our students are known for.
“It’s important that we recognize the achievements of our graduates and not allow this coronavirus pandemic to stop us from showing our tremendous support and admiration for each of you as you move to the next phase of your lives.”
The 1,701 members of MTSU’s December Class of 2020 were the only graduates with the option to attend their scheduled commencement in person this year. May and August Class of 2020 members graduated in virtual ceremonies after the ongoing pandemic forced MTSU to hold those events online; about 397 of those graduates attended the Nov. 21 evening ceremony held especially for them.
The university revamped its indoor commencement procedures and consulted with experts for weeks to conduct its Nov. 21 open-air ceremonies. It required all in-person participants, and each graduate’s handful of guests, to follow the same strict mask, physical distancing and other protocols used on campus all semester.
And it encouraged graduates and their supporters who preferred to celebrate virtually to watch MTSU’s multiple media outlets available at every commencement, including its regular livestreams at www.mtsu.edu/live, its Facebook page and YouTube channel, and its True Blue TV web and cable channel.
Hundreds of viewers tuned in to the university’s livestreams, produced by MTSU’s student-operated Media Arts Productions and MTSU Production Services staffers, for each ceremony, congratulating the graduates in real time with comments and “likes” to show their support.
At each event, students, seated 6 feet apart and five to a row on the east side of Floyd Stadium, rose at their seats, briefly removed their masks and appeared on the Jumbotron when their names were called.
And despite university Provost Mark Byrnes’ smiling reminders to the crowds on the stadium’s opposite side, curbing their cheers and applause — and air horns — until all the graduates were recognized was nearly impossible.
Melissa McDowell, a December graduate who received her Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food science in the Nov. 21 afternoon ceremony from the College of Behavioral and Health Sciences, said many of her friends who graduated in spring 2020 were disappointed that their graduation was a virtual event.
“I’m just glad that I get to do something,” McDowell said. “I feel so blessed to be able to go to the school and celebrate with my family.”
She added that she appreciated the effort university officials made to make her commencement ceremony as safe as possible.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has taught me that life may not go exactly as planned and that it is important to be flexible,” said McDowell, a magna cum laude graduate with a 3.878 current GPA.
“At times, it is easy to get caught up in rigid life plans, but it is crucial to be able to adapt and be flexible, even when there are bumps in the road!”
The Tazewell, Tennessee, native said a concern for health inspired her to choose nutrition and food services as her major.
“Every time I would go to the gym, I would hear others talk about fad diets and disordered diet trends,” McDowell said. “This served as a motivating factor for me to broaden my knowledge and obtain an evidence-based view of human nutrition.”
Of course, she said, being serious about one’s health doesn’t mean the kitchen has to be a fun-free zone.
“Ever since I was a child, I have always loved spending time in the kitchen, creating family recipes and enjoying them with my loved ones,” McDowell said. “This passion of mine for all things food still holds true today.”
Post-graduation, McDowell is working toward a dietetic internship. She also is building “Honeybee Dishin’,” a food blog she said she intends to launch by February 2021 with information on recipe development, baking, food photography and more.
New alumnus Adam Richardson of Smyrna, Tennessee, said he’s finding graduation “bittersweet.”
“Graduation is about taking the next step toward a successful career. It’s a big accomplishment that I am proud to have completed,” the professional physics major said.
“On the other hand, I will be moving away from many great professors and amazing friends that I’ve gotten to know over the past four years.”
Richardson earned his Bachelor of Science degree from the College of Basic and Applied Sciences and graduated magna cum laude with a current 3.889 GPA. He chose not to attend his commencement ceremony because of COVID-19.
The Sycamore High School graduate said he’d originally planned to attend another school but liked the value an MTSU education offered, so he made use of the Tennessee HOPE Scholarship and lived at home.
While at MTSU, Richardson conducted experimental and computational research with professor Bill Robertson in the university’s Department of Physics and Astronomy, and he has an interest in nuclear physics.
He is applying to graduate school at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Duke University and North Carolina State University. As for his career plans?
“I just hope I’ll be able to keep doing physics, math and problem-solving, because that’s what I love doing,” Richardson said.
Along with College of Basic and Applied Sciences graduates like Richardson, Byrnes recognized students in MTSU’s College of Graduate Studies, Jones College of Business and the College of Education in the morning ceremony.
The provost saluted McDowell and her fellow College of Behavioral and Health Sciences graduates and their peers in the College of Liberal Arts, College of Media and Entertainment and the University College during the afternoon ceremony.
Each of the colleges’ deans, associate or assistant deans also encouraged their graduates via video remarks.
The December 2020 graduating class comprises 1,487 undergraduates and 214 graduate students. The College of Graduate Studies honored 194 master’s degree recipients, seven education-specialist degree recipients and 13 doctoral recipients and presented three graduate students with certificates for their advanced study.
MTSU presented 2,519 students with degrees in May: 2,132 undergraduates and 387 graduate students. The 804 August MTSU grads included 577 undergrads and 227 graduate students.
More photos from the day’s events are available at http://facebook.com/mtsublueraiders.
Updated MTSU graduation information is available anytime at http://mtsunews.com/graduation-info.
Fall classes at MTSU end Wednesday, Nov. 25, and finals are scheduled online for Dec. 4-11. Graduates will receive their diplomas by mail in January.
MTSU will begin its spring 2021 semester on Monday, Jan. 25. The semester will once again be a mix of remote-learning, online, in-person and hybrid courses, and mask-wearing will remain mandatory in all indoor public settings.
For status updates on MTSU, visit http://mtsu.edu/coronavirus.
— MTSU News and Media Relations (firstname.lastname@example.org)