CEDAR CITY — Approximately 700 mask-wearing graduates of Southern Utah University’s Class of 2020 were formally awarded their diplomas during Saturday’s commencement ceremony.
The number in attendance represented about a third of SUU’s 2,000-plus students in the Class of 2020 who were originally scheduled to graduate in April but saw their ceremony put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But while most other educational institutions throughout the state and country opted for virtual, online-only commencement ceremonies, SUU’s students had indicated they wanted to receive their degrees at an in-person ceremony, even if it had to be postponed by more than three months.
Saturday’s event, staged with safety and social distancing in mind, was held outdoors in the university’s Upper Quad area for the first time since 1986. Masks or other facial coverings were required, while chairs in the graduates’ seating area were spaced apart and numbered to help with contact tracing. Additionally, other audience members were asked to maintain as much social distance as feasible.
“We thought that perhaps 300 of you would return today and it would be easy to put on these ceremonies here,” SUU President Scott L. Wyatt said during his opening remarks. “There are 700 of you. This is so amazing.”
“This might be the 121st commencement exercise, but the only one ever held … hopefully the first and the last … with masks,” Wyatt said.
The age range of this year’s graduates ranged from 17 to 71, Wyatt noted, adding that the 2,059-member SUU graduating class includes students from 33 different countries, 37 different states and 28 of Utah’s 29 counties.
Featured commencement speaker Elizabeth Lee received her bachelor’s degree in political science and strategic communication. She will be attending law school this fall at Boston College.
“Boston and Cedar City are almost identical, so she will transition smoothly,” Wyatt joked as he introduced Lee. “Elizabeth’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all studied at SUU. She is a fourth-generation Southern Utah University T-Bird.”
Lee’s speech was focused on hope.
“I’d like to use my few minutes with you today to speak about hope. And I know that probably sounds a little cheesy or cliched, but hey, this is a graduation ceremony,” she said. “Webster’s Dictionary defines hope as … I’m totally kidding, I’m not going to be that guy. But I did think a definition would fit in nicely. So I spoke with a few of you graduates here today about what hope means to you.”
Lee said some of her favorite responses included “Hope is going through life expecting with confidence that everything will be okay,” “Hope is the desire that drives me to achieve a goal,” and “Hope is choosing light. It’s choosing to believe that there are good things and your life will work out.”
“And perhaps my personal favorite: hope … our only hope, is Obi-Wan Kenobi,” she said, paraphrasing the famous line from Star Wars.
“I hope we don’t use our graduation today as an excuse to stop learning and growing,” Lee added as she referred to the university’s motto, “Learning lives forever.”
“Let’s be real, we all had a less-than-ideal senior year,” Lee said. “We were thrown into a stressful, anxiety-inducing whirlwind of uncertainty that made for a final semester I’m sure none of us could have anticipated.”
“Over the past six months, the world has given us countless reasons to lose hope, hope in a cure, in our political climate, in our job prospects, in our relationships, even in our fellow man. So yes, while the world has absolutely handed us all seemingly insurmountable challenges lately, both collectively and individually, hope can still be found.”
“Just think, right now we are part of only 7% of the entire world population who hold a college degree,” Lee noted. “We all had the opportunity to attend a great university that offered us a quality education. We had help and support from our loved ones, many of whom are here with us today. We made meaningful connections with peers and mentors who will remain our lifelong friends. Despite a divisive political climate, we all have the right to speak up for what we hold dear. We live in a country which offers us freedom to choose our own path, with very few limits to what we can become. I hope as we move forward, we use the immense privilege of our newly received degrees and experiences to make the world a safer, smarter, brighter, more compassionate place.”
Speaking after Lee was Kathy Wyatt, the SUU president’s wife, a family life and human development major who was receiving her bachelor’s degree some 37 years after taking her first college class and 10 years after deciding to resume her college education after raising four children.
Kathy Wyatt prefaced her remarks with a shout-out to daughter and fellow graduate Naomi.
“She’s graduating today. She took extra classes even during the summer so she could walk with me today. We’re so proud of her.”
Kathy Wyatt then cited several examples of courage she’d seen in her fellow students, which had in turn given her inspiration.
“Courage is Mary, a 92-year-old woman who is returning to school this fall in order to finish her degree in theater,” Kathy Wyatt said. “About this decision, Mary said, ‘One thing I have learned in life is that if your dreams don’t scare you to death, they are not big enough.’”
“I’ve shared just a few stories of courage,” Kathy Wyatt concluded. “Each one of you has your own story of courage you could tell. I wish I knew them all. I do know one we all experienced together. Our class, with one month left in spring semester, had to switch to online schooling. This caused significant stress for many, as well as anxiety and even depression. It was tempting to quit, but we didn’t. We kept pushing forward until we finished.”
“Thank you for your examples of courage.” Kathy Wyatt added. “They inspired and motivated me when I needed a model. I’m honored to be part of your class, the Class of 2020 T-Birds.”
Following his wife’s remarks, Scott Wyatt again addressed the audience, joking, “With every additional student that showed up today, I took one minute off my speech. Which means I completed it about an hour ago.”
During his remarks, Scott Wyatt used a dual analogy to describe the different ways in which human lives are shaped.
“We are all made up of both clay and steel,” he said. “We have hard and soft spots. There is porcelain and iron, both, in our DNA. Sometimes it’s the soft touch of the potter, and sometimes it’s the blow of the blacksmith hammer that shapes us.”
“Both the blacksmith and the potter have our best interests at heart,” he added. “I have found I prefer the gentle touch of the potter to the blows of the blacksmith. But I have also found that sometimes I need a little heat, to change, to become humble, to become myself or gentle to understand others.”
“Usually, over the course of my life, I have discovered that when the worst things seemed to be happening … when I’m disappointed and stressed or anxious about disappointments and failures, I have found that these are almost always followed by something wonderful,” Scott Wyatt added. “Our beautiful sunrises always follow darkness, and … night always gives way to morning.”
Wyatt encouraged the students to boldly face the challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It kind of seems to me today that we, our community and the world are in the smith’s furnace. With the pandemic and recession and riots and every other turmoil, personal and public known and unknown, we are in the heat of it. And this heat will shape us. We will come through this as a people, as a university, as a community, as a world changed.”
“Fortunately for us, we are not mere clay or steel,” he added. “As the forces act on us, we have agency to respond as we choose, we can allow the smith or the potter to make us into something special, and wonderful to come out of this better than we started.”
Southern Utah University will come out of this pandemic and recession and other issues of unrest better than we started. And if we don’t, then shame on us, right? This is our opportunity. This is our day. The storm is out there. And the silver linings are developing. And it’s for us to choose whether to look up or to look down.
Following Scott Wyatt’s remarks, SUU Provost Jon Anderson formally conferred the appropriate degrees to the graduates, collectively by group. Although not all of the graduates were present for the ceremony, the SUU Class of 2020 had a total of 277 associate’s degrees, 1,280 bachelor’s degrees and 480 master’s degrees awarded.
Colton Fowler, a business management major from Tooele, was recognized as the class valedictorian. He plans to pursue a master’s degree in business analytics.
Two graduates were awarded degrees posthumously. One was James O. Wisecup, who died of cancer on July 30 at age 71. Wisecup was a decorated military veteran and civilian helicopter pilot who had just completed his coursework for his bachelor’s degree in aviation science. His degree was presented to his wife, Jessica.
Additionally, Michael Flesher, Jr., a nursing student who died in April, had his bachelor’s degree presented to his father, Michael Flesher, Sr.
At the beginning of the ceremony, right after the national anthem, a group of SUU Aviation helicopters had flown over the crowd in a “missing man” formation in honor of both Wisecup and Flesher, as well as “others who have lost their lives this year, especially those in service of our country,” Scott Wyatt noted.
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