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Local colleges plan virtual graduation events

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This time of year always has been filled with preparation for graduation ceremonies, but, in the age of coronavirus, those ceremonies will take to the small screens of computers, tablets and smart phones as local higher education institutions plan virtual events.

“It is not a replacement for a live, in-person ceremony with family and friends and everyone excited and applauding and that sort of thing,” said Donna Oracion, college development officer for Eastern New Mexico University-Roswell. “It is a project that we are happy to do, and we hope that students appreciate it. We really wanted to congratulate them the best we can.”

The school has been working since late March on a video production featuring remarks by school leaders such as President Shawn Powell and Vice President for Academic Affairs Annemarie Oldfield. It also will include the national anthem, three student speakers and a reading of the names of all students earning about 340 certificates and associate’s degrees, as well as 11 students receiving either bachelor’s or master’s degrees from the Portales campus. About 70 students also have responded to the invitation to submit their photos for the video.

The ceremony will be live-streamed Friday at 6 p.m. on the school’s Facebook page and available for later viewing as well.

“We are inviting all of our spring and summer graduates to participate in the December ceremony, so if they do want to walk and have that experience of being in a ceremony with family and friends in the gathering … they are certainly going to be welcome,” Oracion said.

Subject to change given the coronavirus situation, the winter event is now scheduled for Dec. 10 at the Roswell Convention & Civic Center.

The current situation strikes one of the school’s speakers as disconcerting.

“I was looking forward to my last semester, finishing strong, walking that stage and making my parents proud,” said Maria Ramirez Alvarez, 22, a Hagerman High School graduate who has earned an associate’s degree as an occupational therapist assistant, the career she intends to pursue now.

She said she does plan to participate in the December event, but that it doesn’t feel the same as being able to give her talk now in front of friends and family.

“It’s just crazy how from one day to another your plans can change,” she said. “Never in my life did I picture myself being in this position, where I’d be having a virtual graduation, and be watching it with my family from home.”

Ramirez as well as the other two student speakers are Presidential Scholars. Joselyn Salazar, 20, is a Goddard High School graduate who has earned an associate’s in biology and is intending to continue her studies in cognitive neuroscience. Dominic Garza, 20, plans to continue his education at the University of New Mexico and become a medical doctor. He is a Gateway High School graduate and has earned an associate’s in biology.

New Mexico Military Institute also will hold an online event. It will be held live on YouTube at 1 p.m. May 16. It also will be posted on the Institute’s website.

Along with speeches by NMMI academic leaders and a Board of Regents member, a highlight will be a commencement speech by former NMMI cadet Jordan Ta’amu. He attended the Institute for about two years until 2016 and just recently signed as a quarterback with the Kansas City Chiefs.

“I do believe that it will be something pretty outstanding for people to enjoy,” said Colonel David West, NMMI Chief of Staff. “It is unique in that cadets will have this as a memory beyond what we have done before.”

He said NMMI staff has produced a few videos since the coronavirus situation closed the campus in March, including a “Dear NMMI Class of 2020” video. Cadets talk about what they are missing by studying at home and not being together.

“We may not be able to make the final memories,” one cadet says in the video, “but we will be remembered.”

As with ENMU-R, NMMI will allow 2020 graduates to participate in the December ceremonies if they choose, West said.

He also said that yearbook photos of the 200 or so high school and junior college graduates will appear in the commencement video as their names are read, and that there will be speeches by the valedictorian and salutatorian of the high school and college. Those honors still need to be determined after finals and certification by school officials.

He said that six cadets in the running for those designations have recorded speeches.

“We will actually plug in the recording of the salutatorian and valedictorian” on Friday morning, he said. “It will be kind of a surprise for the class.”

He said some cadets are flourishing with the virtual environment, but some are struggling.

“But we are all having to learn and adjust, not just students,” he said, “but teachers, the same; staff, the same; everybody.”

New Mexico Highlands University typically holds a spring commencement in Roswell for its master’s degree program graduates. Requests for information about its commencement plans this year were not returned by press time. The main Highlands University campus in Las Vegas has indicated on its website that its commencement is postponed.

Senior Writer Lisa Dunlap can be reached at 575-622-7710, ext. 351, or at reporter02@rdrnews.com.