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WVU Tech grads celebrate in-person commencement, head into the world with new purpose

An image of the convention center, gold and blue-clad graduates standing in the auditorium with hundreds of friends and family looking on.

WVU Tech graduates stood in line at the Beckley Raleigh County Convention Center on a chilly spring Saturday, the sense of excitement in those halls thick as smoke. It had a been a tough year, marked by a global pandemic, social unrest and all the hustle and bustle of senior year. But as they gathered for that traditional walk, adjusting their sashes, tightening their masks and making sure friends and classmates had their tassels on the correct side of their mortarboards, a sense of calm washed over the center. As those famous first bars of Pomp and Circumstance filled the room, these men and women who had seen a year of trepidation began their walk with a sense of overwhelming pride and of purpose.

A sea of WVU Tech graduates sit in the convention center, the camera focuses on a male grad in his cap, gown and mask as he listens to the speaker.

A ceremony for the times
On Saturday, May 8, WVU Tech celebrated its first in-person commencement ceremonies since 2019. The socially distant event honored more than 180 graduates from as far back as December 2019 and welcomed more than 1,000 guests.

Family and friends from across the country and around the world filed in from separate entrances based on the gradates names to find separated family "pods" for each group of guests. Graduates donned special masks for the day's activities and filled the convention center auditorium in spaced seating. The highly-orchestrated event felt appropriate for the era of COVID-19 without despoiling the traditions laid out in previous ceremonies.

WVU Tech Campus President Carolyn Long addressed the group, thanking them for working so hard to make the year a success during the pandemic.

“This little school has shown the world that when you put a group of talented, caring people together to meet a goal, it can be done," she said. “This fine group of men and women not only learned their subject matter, but they have matured. They’ve learned to be doers, thinkers, leaders – to adapt and pivot. And heaven knows we’ve all learned to Zoom."

That sense of stick-to-itiveness in the face of widespread adversity was a common thread in the day's remarks, where graduates were lauded for their hard work.

Michael Ecker-Randolph, graduate and president of the WVU Tech Student Government Association, encouraged students to continue that momentum in their lives.

“You need to have the self-motivation and be willing to put in that extra mile when no one else is watching, because in the end, that is what makes a difference. It took endurance and strength to make it here. You put in that extra mile and you developed those skills – and for that I commend you," he said.

For commencement speaker and West Virginia University President E. Gordon Gee, the day's festivities were an important remind for new grads and their families.

“My hope for today’s graduates is an awareness that, even in times of separation and isolation, we are all in this thing together," he told the crowd.

“Let this period of physical distancing remind you how precious human connections are. Instead of returning to normal life when this pandemic is over, build a richer one with less TikTok and more togetherness.”

Six recent Tech grads toss their graduation caps into the air on a sunny spring day, the convention center behind them and not a cloud in the sky.

A ray of hope, beaming from Beckley

As newly minted graduates and their families left the auditorium and gathered for family photos, there was laughter. There were excited conversations muffled by masks. Old friends caught up and newer friends made plans to stay in touch. There were a few tears, too, but the sense of relief and excitement for the future was impossible to miss.

For graduates like Tia Harris, a forensic investigation major from Newark, Delaware, it was time to start something entirely new. She wants to go into crime scene investigation for the Air Force, so the next few months are about getting back into the swing of being home and landing that new job.

"It was tough this year, but I made so many friends here that I'm going to have forever, no matter what I do. It's a really good feeling," she said.

Tia's mother, Tabatha, said she was proud of the way her daughter persevered.

"It's emotional today. It's also a big relief. I'm so happy for all these students and they deserve this, especially after the crazy year they had. And I'm proud of Tia for sticking with it. I've seen a lot of kids who couldn't take being virtual all year, so it was a big plus that she could come to campus and interact with her teachers. It made a big difference," she said.

On the other side of the convention center, graduate Brett Linton, a civil engineering major from Inwood, West Virginia, took photos with some of his classmates. The baseball player said the sport had taught him a lot about being able to adapt but that he had learned a lot during his final year.

"It's been a big adjustment, for sure, but I found that if you push through it and continue to work hard, things take care of themselves," he said.

Linton starts his new job with the West Virginia Division of Highways in under a week and said that, all things considered, he's got a positive outlook on the next few years.

"I'm going to keep working like this and, hopefully in a few years, I'll someday be at the top," he said.

That spirit of hopefulness rang true in every conversation on that convention center lawn. 

Zachary Clark and his dad Todd talked about the recent grad's future in psychology. The Beckley native - and his smiling father - were happy to have had an opportunity to learn locally and were excited about the potential for graduate school in the near future.

Forensic investigation grad Catheryn Kidd came to Tech from Columbus, Ohio. The December grad said she wants to go into a career with the FBI. "This was a hard year. It threw us for a loop," she said. "But we made it through, and I'm really excited about focusing on a career and everything that's coming up."

And as robes were tossed into cars and families started trickling out into town for their celebrations, Golden Bears congratulated each other, promising one another that they'd always be around. They stopped their cars to catch professors, vowing to keep them updated, and waved goodbye to the place they had called home for some of the most important years of their lives.

Those calls across the parking lot gave weight to the words of Campus President Long as she shared her own parting words to the graduates: "No matter where you are, what you’re doing or what you need, WVU Tech will always be here for you.”

View the full commencement ceremony on WVU Tech's YouTube page and see photos from the event on Flickr. Be sure to check out local media coverage of the ceremonies from WVNS.