One by one, the Hamline University graduates wearing black gowns, caps and mandatory masks walked across the stage as their names were read. Their loved ones applauded and shouted with joy, some of them in tears, as they captured the milestone moment on their cellphone cameras.
The Friday graduation ceremony at the St. Paul RiverCentre was not just special because it was the private university's first in-person commencement in more than a year. This ceremony honored graduates from the class of 2020, a year after the COVID-19 pandemic upended their final college moments and robbed them of a traditional graduation.
"We promised them that we would recognize them when we were able to do so," Hamline President Fayneese Miller said. "This is a group that always maintained hope."
Hamline did not hold a virtual commencement ceremony last year, either, instead filming a 7.5-minute degree conferral video for its graduates featuring remarks from Miller and student and faculty speakers. The celebration held Friday had much of the pomp and circumstance seen at graduations in years past, minus the guest speakers and honorary degree recipients.
About 180 Hamline graduates from last year's class were split into two groups that walked during separate ceremonies held roughly an hour apart.
Each graduate was allowed two guests, who were seated in pairs spaced 6 feet apart from others.
The occasion marked a major milestone for both Hamline graduate Cathy Ngo, 23, and her family. Ngo, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology, is the first in her family to graduate from college.
Her parents attended the ceremony and her grandparents watched via livestream.
"I know that my parents are extremely happy," Ngo said. "I don't think they understand how much more it means to me that they sacrificed their life in our home country, Vietnam, to travel here. They've sacrificed so many things just for me to go to school."
Miller, administrators and members of Hamline's board of trustees gave remarks praising the graduates for their resilience weathering an unprecedented year.
"No pandemic was going to stop you from getting your degree," Miller said. "In the midst of all this, you persevered."
During her speech, Miller asked all the graduates to turn around and thank their loved ones for helping them get here.
Their families waved back and shouted they loved them.
Graduate Ray Doss, the ceremony's student speaker, encouraged his classmates to strive to live in the moment, because as the pandemic showed in dramatic fashion, nobody knows what the future holds.
He wrote the speech more than a year ago, before 2020 graduates had their commencement canceled. "The message still stands," he said.
"We need to stop worrying about tomorrow and prioritize our happiness today," Doss said. "What we do know is we're here now, we've accomplished a lot, and that is worth celebrating."
Doss added he was excited to see his peers again, joking that many graduates viewed the Friday ceremony as a sort of class reunion.
As graduates began trickling out of the RiverCentre ballroom, Ricardo Martinez warmly embraced his parents. Martinez, who graduated with bachelor's degrees in applied mathematics and physics, was honored with a student leadership and service award during Friday's ceremony.
"It felt really good because it gave me the closure that I needed," said Martinez, who is now working as an algorithm engineer in Maple Grove.
His parents, Maggie and Jose Urbina, beamed with pride as they reveled in their son's accomplishments. To see him walk across the stage, even a year late, was a moment they will never forget.
"I'm just overwhelmed with joy," his mother said. "I think we needed this."
Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234