Izaak Mendoza had planned to welcome his extended family from Wyoming to Minnesota this week to celebrate his University of Minnesota graduation. He was going to show them around campus and was looking forward to his mom and grandma preparing his favorite dishes for the party.
Instead, with travel out of the question and in-person ceremonies canceled, the festivities were limited to his living room, with his wife, Becky, and two cats the only attendees.
The University of Minnesota’s commencement ceremony Saturday was virtual for Mendoza and the more than 17,000 other undergraduates, graduate, and professional students who earned a 2020 degree from one of the school’s five campuses this spring.
“It’s still a really big, momentous thing, something to be proud of, but it is also kind of a sad day. We were looking forward to having my family here,” said Mendoza, who tuned in from his couch, pulling up the virtual occasion on his television screen. “For me, events are sentimental,” he said.
The ceremony was prerecorded, but the link didn’t go live until 11 a.m. Mendoza and his wife had hung 2020 streamers from the fireplace mantel in their Maple Grove home, and Mendoza, set to graduate with an MBA from the Carlson School of Management and a master’s degree in public policy from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, was prepared in his gown, honor cords and stole.
Still, they weren’t quite ready. First, they had to sort out the television’s speakers, connect with his parents and brothers through Facebook Messenger on a laptop propped on the coffee table, and coach his grandparents in finding the right link to click.
Then, with the virtual commencement up on everyone’s screen, Mendoza’s mom, Cynthia, said she wanted to search for the slide showing his photo first, and hear his name read. So they upended the ceremony’s order a bit.
“Oh! There’s my baby,” she said proudly, as his photo filled the screen.
Finally, Izaak and Becky settled back on the couch to listen to University President Joan Gabel’s commencement address, as family in Wyoming cued up the same video.
Gabel acknowledged that the ceremony wasn’t the celebration that most graduates had been expecting but said students throughout the university’s history have faced similar challenges.
“All of you have further enhanced this legacy with your flexibility and understanding, commitment to the task at hand, and navigation of this disruption to earn the degree you have worked so hard to attain while rising up during a time of great personal significance to put the health, safety and well-being of others, above all else,” she said. “Your entire university family stands in appreciation and celebrates this once-in-a-lifetime experience that is truly unique to you all across the world today.”
She challenged them to find innovation during the hardship.
“Good luck. Be healthy, be bold, be inspired, but always come home,” Gabel said. “We look forward to seeing and hearing all about the incredible things you’ll accomplish in the days and years ahead. Hail to the class of 2020.”
The big screen in the Mendoza’s living room also showed recorded speeches from prominent faculty and regents, including epidemiologist Michael Osterholm, director of the University’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
“You are to be congratulated for getting though this tough time,” Osterholm said.
Finally, Board of Regents Chair Ken Powell asked the graduates to “please rise.”
“That’s you! Stand up,” Becky Mendoza encouraged her husband, before “Pomp and Circumstance” began playing and the video showed costumed mascots from each of the different campuses striding in time to the music.
“Mom, are you crying?” Mendoza asked. “That was pretty cool.”
“Congratulations, baby,” she said.
Afterward, the Mendozas planned to open a box of their favorite Glam Doll doughnuts, a sorry substitute for the dish they had hoped to be eating (“Gran’s enchiladas”) but celebratory all the same.
Mendoza, who is starting a job as an associate marketing manager at Schwan’s this spring, said he was feeling a bit “muted.”
“I’m so very grateful and thankful, and I have a surge of energy to go take on the world,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m really looking forward to when we actually get to meet in person.”