Pomp and circumstances: Graduating seniors start ‘New Chapter’ with independent commencement

By Valentina Pucarelli, Photojournalist

Columbia seniors prepare to walk and receive their mock diplomas at the student-run, in-person graduation ceremony at the Loews Hotel. (Valentina Pucarelli)

Columbia has not held an in-person commencement since 2019, as the pandemic brought a halt to the tradition. But that did not stop a group of graduating seniors and their families from celebrating together in their own independent ceremony.

On Sunday, May 16, 45 Columbia students and 140 of their family members gathered at the Loews Hotel, 455 N. Park Drive, for a graduation ceremony with a live music performance and speeches from a faculty member, an industry professional and the student organizers—graduating public relations majors Nathan Branch and Jahmelah Miller.

Columbia offered a virtual commencement for the class for 2021, which led Branch and Miller to take it upon themselves to launch the #CommenceAnyways campaign, an initiative for an in-person ceremony, as reported by the Chronicle.

Family and friends sat together in groups of three, and students were 6 feet apart to ensure safety.

A graduating student personalized their regalia with Mexican symbols like Michoacan butterflies and the phrase “si se pudo,” which translates to “we did it.” (Valentina Pucarelli)

Adrianna Lester, a recent graduate from the Music Department who goes by NEVA, sang an original song called “New Chapter,” a song about closing doors and looking into the future, while playing a djembe, a type of goblet drum, before the graduates’ names were called to receive their diplomas.

Communication Department adjunct faculty member Jeremy Berrington and Kimberley Rudd of Rudd Resources LLC, a communications firm on the South Side of Chicago, gave speeches commending the graduating seniors for their accomplishments and their positive mentality going forward. Rudd called the students’ names, and Berrington gave away mock diplomas.

As part of their class “Social Change Communications” taught by Berrington, Branch created a survey to learn what seniors’ interests were for their graduation. Through this survey the organizers learned that many students wanted an in-person ceremony.

“[Miller and Branch] didn’t just identify a problem, they created a solution and worked their tails off to make it happen,” Berrington said. “As a professor, it was one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever been able to see in terms of the impact of what you’re teaching them being translated into the real world.”

Nathan Branch, Alice Scharf and Jahmelah Miller address graduating students and their families after the graduation ceremony they organized. (Valentina Pucarelli)

Branch and Miller raised $6,156 through a GoFundMe and were able to secure the Loews hotel terrace downtown three weeks before the event.

The requirements to participate in the event were to be a college graduate from 2020 or Spring 2021, pay a $30 participation fee through Eventbrite and provide a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours of the event or proof of vaccination 14 days prior to the event.

It took Jahmelah Miller 17 years to graduate from Columbia, which is one of the reasons why this event was important to her. (Valentina Pucarelli)

The ceremony was recorded and livestreamed on Facebook Live.

Students from various departments and majors participated in the ceremony.

“The pandemic took so much from us, so the idea that everything is being celebrated together and being unified as one, it warms my heart to the fullest,” Branch said.