Jacob McCullough is eagerly awaiting the day he'll cross the stage at Bethel University's graduation.

"I just hope I don't trip when I walk across," he said half-joking. "I don't have any practice."

Thousands of students will graduate from Minnesota colleges this year. For McCullough and many others, the in-person ceremony will be their first. Four years ago, COVID-19 lockdowns upended high school graduations — making this year's college celebrations twice as momentous.

Without the big high school ceremony, "it felt like you skipped over something, and all of a sudden I was in college," said Onella Nkurunziza, who will graduate soon from the University of St. Thomas.

From Rwanda, Nkurunziza was studying in Wisconsin when the pandemic sped up her plans to return home. Her family gathered in the living room to watch her high school ceremony. This year, they'll fly in to watch her cross the stage, cheering as she goes.

"Getting to have that experience finally is exciting," Nkurunziza said. "Four years is a hustle."

Elliot Steeves is feeling more relaxed about graduation this year. He said his final months at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis were spent online, and "anytime I thought about the transition to college, it felt like mostly I was grieving the very sudden end of something."

Steeves watched the video of his high school graduation in his pajamas, while eating takeout. His upcoming graduation from Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn., will take place on a field outdoors, weather permitting. His classmates will surround him.

He said maybe it's the passage of time. Or maybe the end of lockdowns. But, Steeves said, "I feel just way more peaceful and settled about graduation and that transition process specifically."

Ian Zukor was scheduled to give the speech at his Wayzata High School graduation at 3M Arena at Mariucci at the University of Minnesota. But because of COVID-19, the ceremony was moved online. He pre-recorded his message instead.

"It was happy but weird, which almost anyone would tell you," Zukor said.

On Sunday, he got the chance to finally deliver a speech inside the arena — this time as a graduate of the U.

"I'm thrilled," Zukor said. "I really see it as a special moment in my life timeline."

COVID-19 changed college

When McCullough's high school graduation was moved online, celebrating almost felt like an afterthought.

"It wasn't like the world was going on normally and we were the only ones suffering with no graduation," he said.

Masking and social distancing were still commonplace when he entered Bethel University. Movie nights were outside with viewers spaced 6 feet apart. Dining halls served food in take-out containers. The only people he saw without masks were the guys on his floor, people who remain his best friends to this day.

When he looked back through his photos of those early days on campus, he said, "it was fun to relive those things and just realize how crazy that was and, in a sense, how far we've come at the same time."

His final days at Bethel will be different. There will be a benediction, a graduation ceremony and a reception. Meanwhile, senioritis is kicking in, and McCullough said he's "hitting the point where I'm ready to run across that stage."