Commencement 2021

Commencement ceremony brings college together to celebrate the classes of 2020 and 2021

Written by Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21, a recent graduate in History and English

“It’s been a long time coming that we could all celebrate this day together,” said Ryan Beauchamp, the Lees-McRae inaugural master's degree graduate, in his remarks to the Class of 2020 at the Lees-McRae College 2021 Commencement. Beauchamp could not have chosen better words to encapsulate the sentiments of the classes of 2020 and 2021. The Lees-McRae graduates gathered the morning of May 8 in the MacRae Meadows at Grandfather Mountain, after more than a year of living through a pandemic. 

It has certainly been a long time coming. It seems ages since Lees-McRae students received the fateful email announcing the suspension of in-person classes after spring break 2020. In the following weeks, the entire world would change drastically as educational institutions, commerce, and international travel began to shut down.   

Emily Harrison, who majored in Special Education, recalls her uncertainty at the beginning of the pandemic.  

In March 2020, Harrison was student teaching when the school where she was working closed. “I thought I wasn’t going be able to get my degree and my teaching license,” said Harrison. 

Fortunately, Lees-McRae found an alternative way for Harrison to complete her student teaching requirement. She earned her degree at the end of Spring 2020. However, like millions of graduating students worldwide, COVID-19 took away Harrison’s opportunity to have a graduation ceremony and celebrate this milestone with her peers. 

Last May, Harrison and her fellow 2020 graduates watched a virtual End-of-Year Celebration through Facebook Live, sitting on a couch at home with their respective families. The college did plan to hold in-person Commencement exercises for the Class of 2020 when it was safe to do so, but the uncertainty and waiting were difficult.  

“It didn’t really feel real that we had graduated,” said Harrison. 

In the following months, everyone had to adapt to a world of masks, social distancing, hand sanitizer, and Zoom meetings.  

In the uncertainty of the early stages of the pandemic, the Lees-McRae faculty, students, and administration were unsure how COVID-19 would impact the school's future. 

“I had concerns and questions about whether we were going to be able to reopen and have students back on campus,” commented President Lee King in an interview after Commencement. 

Following the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) guidelines, Lees-McRae undertook the challenge of reopening in the fall of 2020. In August, as students returned to campus, many continued to wonder if the school would be able to remain open throughout the 2020–21 academic year. 

For the upcoming seniors of the class of 2021, the Fall and Spring semesters were marked by nervousness and constant fear that the virus would impact their graduation too.  

“This virus has taught us to not take things for granted,” said Bailey Coleman, president of the Student Government Association, in her speech at the 2021 Commencement. “It could all be taken away so quickly.” 

In the early fall, COVID-19 outbreaks forced multiple schools that had reopened for in-person classes to close once again, like with the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill. The following December and January, the United States underwent its worst spike of COVID-19 cases.  

The threat of shutting down remained a shadow in the background. The 2020–21 academic year at Lees-McRae was full of moments of tension. The appearance of any new case on campus and the news of a sports team moving into quarantine filled students and administrators with concern. 

As the months went on, the efforts of the Lees-McRae faculty, administration, and staff to follow COVID-19 safety measures became critical.  

The cooperation of students and employees with mask mandates, contact tracing, and sanitation allowed Lees-McRae to successfully contain the virus's spread. The school remained open throughout the fall and spring. 

“One of the benefits of being a small school is that we could use the safety measures and have a successful year with students on campus,” said King. 

Come May 2021, the school’s goal of hosting in-person Commencement exercises was about to become a reality. The graduating seniors would be able to celebrate their achievements along with their families and classmates. 

Lees-McRae extended the invitation to the class of 2020 for their long-awaited graduation ceremony. 

“I knew that when the time was right, we would be able to celebrate our 2020 graduates,” said King during Commencement. 

The morning of graduation day, the atmosphere of excitement was almost tangible. On that cold, windy morning at MacRae Meadows, between laughs, coffee, and biscuits, the graduating seniors shared memories with their faculty mentors and the graduates from 2020.  

“It’s nice to see students and former students with their families celebrating this accomplishment,” said Miodrag Popovic, a graduating senior in the Sport Management program. At the graduation reception, Miodrag was able to take pictures with his current and former teammates from the Lees-McRae tennis team.  

At 11 a.m., students marched to their chairs to the rhythm of Gordon Warburton’s bagpipes.  

The ceremony started with an invocation by the Rev. Ted Henry and welcome remarks by Jesse Pope ’02, president and executive director of Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation.  

King conferred an Honorary Doctoral of Humanities to W. McNair Tornow for his contributions to Lees-McRae College and the Banner Elk community. McNair became a member of the Lees-McRae Board of Trustees in 2012 and assumed the position of chair in 2017. 

King then announced the honorees of the H.C. Evans Jr. Fidelity Awards. Each year, Fidelity Awards are given to one main campus student and one distance learning/online student who “embody the hallmarks of a Lees-McRae student.” The 2020 Fidelity Award recipients were Anders Stoakes from the main campus and Candice Fenton from the distance learning programs. They were initially presented with the award during the May 2020 End-of-Year Celebration. The 2021 recipients were Sabrina Patterson, an RN to BSN online student, and Amanda Lubkemann, who is pursuing her Master of Arts in Teaching. The commencement speaker, Andrea Ruiz-Hays, founder and CEO of Eco Strategies Group, took the stage next.  

Ruiz-Hays had been selected as the speaker for the 2020 Commencement before the beginning of the pandemic. A year later, she agreed to give the Commencement address in 2021 without hesitation. “I may be a year late in congratulating you for your graduation, but I am so glad that we could be here together,” said Ruiz to the class of 2020. 

Ruiz-Hays recognized the resilience of Lees-McRae students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. “Just like your mascot, the bobcat, you adapted to your surroundings, changing your schedules, going from in-person to virtual classes, and making sure you never lost sight of your goal,” she said. 

There were also instances of amusement. The sudden wind blowing over Grandfather was one of the day's antagonists, as students, faculty, and speakers struggled to hold their caps in place throughout the ceremony.  

The moment of the presentation of the classes of 2020 and 2021 arrived. One by one, the 2020 graduates and the 2021 candidates for graduation walked across the stage, battling to hold their caps in place but bearing broad smiles as they were greeted by the president. 

As the members of the 2020 and 2021 classes were individually recognized, the cheers and cries of family relatives, friends, and classmates sounded over MacRae Meadows. 

The excitement of both classes of 2020 and 2021 could have likely been heard as far as Calloway Peak. Some hugged each other. Others shouted at the top of their lungs. Many threw their caps to the air, which flew towards the audience in the gusts of wind. 

The ceremony continued with remarks from graduates Ryan Beauchamp and Bailey Coleman. Then, Talia Freeman, president of the Alumni Board, welcomed the recent graduates into the Lees-McRae Alumni Association 

Commencement concluded with The Highlanders singing the college hymn, “Assurance,” and King offering a benediction. 

After the conclusion of the ceremony, the 2020 and 2021 graduates rushed to the arms of their families and loved ones in the audience.  

For a brief moment, the scene at MacRae Meadows appeared to be an illusion. Tears of happiness mingled with hysterical laughs, affectionate hugs, and enthusiastic congratulations. Over the past year, the dream of gathering together again and having an in-person event seemed evasive at times. 

The year 2020 will remain one for the history books. As King observed during Commencement, the digits 2020 are a symbol of strength and determination.  

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lees-McRae classes of 2020 and 2021 overcame the uncertainty and fulfilled their educational goals. 

Read more end-of-year coverage 

By Juan Sebastian Restrepo ’21May 13, 2021