During a school year where most interaction was confined to Zoom calls, graduates at Regis University came together one final time on a sunny, warm, Saturday afternoon to celebrate commencement. Although the ongoing pandemic made the celebration bittersweet, they still were able to find gratification in their accomplishments.
When Veronica Valenzuela enrolled in Regis’s MBA program, she was looking forward to small class sizes and forming personal relationships with her classmates and teachers. The shift to remote learning made it harder to get the most out of her education. Through the adversity, Valenzuela feels having to adapt and become comfortable operating in a virtual environment helped her to better prepare to enter the real world.
“Graduating in a pandemic has given me a tremendous amount of resilience and responsibility,” Valenzuela said. “Resilience knowing I can face any challenge thrown my way and responsibility knowing that with my education I can and will make a positive impact on my community.”
Rachael Plantz has spent the last decade working as an air traffic controller in the Air Force. While the transition to remote learning has negatively impacted many students, being able to take courses online helped her finish her bachelor’s degree in Information Technology in a timely manner.
“Remote learning allowed me to be anywhere in the country and still finish my degree, or take a pause when I needed to while still working full time,” Plantz said. “There’s the benefit of being able to complete the degree anytime and anywhere.”
Ultimately, the pandemic enabled Plantz to finish her degree a year-and-a-half earlier than expected. As a result, she was able to get commissioned by the military, something she doesn’t think would’ve happened under normal circumstances.
“The job that I was able to get offered me my position and I had my degree,” Plantz said. “If I would’ve waited a year and a half I wouldn’t have gotten the opportunity to commission at all. The pandemic allowed me to expedite some of those goals and ascertain some of those things that I didn’t think was possible,” she added.
Unlike other universities, which primarily offer classes in-person, a significant portion of Regis’s operation happens online. The flexibility of remote learning has allowed students of all different ages, from all over the world, to get a degree from the university. Familiarity with online learning has eased the transition to a fully remote model during the beginning of the pandemic, university officials say.
In 2010, Anton Iliev, 43, took a chance when he decided to go back to school to pursue a computer science degree. Ten years and hours of hard work later, he described getting to finally walk across the stage as a “magical experience.” An immigrant from Bulgaria, Iliev feels rewarded by his college experience and encourages anyone in a similar situation to take a leap of faith.
“I got the confidence I needed and I proved to myself and my friends that I could do it,” Iliev said. “It might be hard, but at the end of the day, you’re the CEO of your own life, and there’s no limits for those who want to achieve something.”
A self-proclaimed computer fanatic, Iliev believes earning his degree at a later stage in life has made him more well-rounded.
“It made me wiser, smarter, and more appreciative of things in the computer science world. I hope I can contribute to society in a positive way by using my knowledge gained.”
To host graduation with guests in attendance, Regis was required to submit a variance request through the city of Denver, which typically takes six-to-eight weeks for approval. Graduates’ chairs were spaced out seven feet apart to abide by local guidelines. Ceremonies were divided by school. Students were permitted to bring two guests, with the university conducting a lottery for graduates who wished to bring additional people. During the ceremony, they were permitted to remove their masks when crossing the stage.
As the cohort of 2021 exited Regis’s campus in cap and gown, and into a world of uncertainty, the recent graduates did so knowing they gained a world class education that prepared them for what’s next.
Jack Stern is a Denver based freelance multimedia journalist, reporting on all things Colorado. Previously, he covered the Colorado Buffaloes football and basketball team for SBNation and Rivals.com.