Class of 2021 reflects on Kent State, COVID experiences as in-person commencement ceremonies resume

Family members and guests were encouraged to stand with their graduates and congratulate them before receiving their diplomas on May 13, 2021.

Editor’s Note: The following story has been updated to include photographs of graduates Gianna DaPra and Jordan Bigelow. 

High fives were exchanged and excited cheers rang through Centennial Court Green during Kent State’s fourth in-person commencement ceremony. Graduates from the College of Aeronautics and Engineering and the College of Education, Health and Human Services were honored Thursday afternoon for their academic achievements within their majors. 

In-person ceremonies began Monday, resuming for the first time since December 2019, with about 2,700 students attending one of the six ceremonies stretching out over six days total. Graduates were relieved to be able to experience an in-person ceremony after a tumultuous year of study in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I know that in many ways our cards were dealt unfairly, but my grandmother always told me everything happens for a reason,” said Tiera Moore, the 2021 class president. “I believe that each and every one of us was meant to be here at this time. After all, we’ve learned more through this historic event than any degree can ever prove.”

Gianna DaPra, a journalism graduate, echoed Moore and said she will be leaving Kent State with a “full heart” even though it may not have been the typical experience of most college students.

“COVID and the pandemic kind of wiped out the last two years,” DaPra said. “I’m just happy that I at least got this last year to feel like there was a little bit of normalcy even though it wasn’t at its full capacity.”

She said it was bittersweet to be spending her last time as a student, but that she was looking forward to what’s coming next. 

“It’s sad, but it’s exciting,” said DaPra, who is one of seven students featured in a university press release. “I don’t regret anything that I did here, and I got the most out of my college career that I think I wanted to, so I’m happy I’m leaving with the full heart,” she said. 

DaPra worked since her freshman year with student media and TV2, the student-run television station on campus. She is one of the top 10 students nationally recognized for television features reporting by the Hearst Journalism Awards, widely regarded as the “Pulitzer Prize of collegiate journalism.”

DaPra credits her accomplishment to the skills she learned while working with TV2 throughout her college career. At the station, she hosted and reported for two entertainment shows and was a news reporter and anchor for the Flashcast, a morning news show. 

“That was the most fun that I had,” she said. “I felt like I knew that this was like the right place for me, because when you enjoy the anchor you’re with, and you enjoy the people you’re surrounded by, … it makes everything just so much better.”

Maggie Lawrence, a business administration graduate, took time in her undergraduate years to study abroad.

“Going to Greece was my favorite memory. I studied abroad for marketing and sustainability,” Lawrence said. “I loved meeting new people and trying new foods.”

Some of the most memorable moments for graduates happened right on Kent’s campus.

“I loved going to watch the sporting events,” said Maria Frissora, an interior design graduate. “Basketball and football games were my favorite to go to.”

Similarly, Brandon Lewis, also a journalism graduate, enjoyed spending his time at school with his colleagues and friends at Black Squirrel Radio. Lewis, who has cerebral palsy, was recently featured on Opportunities for Ohioans with Disabilities and talked about his future career goal of having his own sports radio talk show.

“I’ve been in love with sports since my youth. Sports has always been a part of me and I love sharing my opinion on air,” Lewis said. “That’s one of the things that gravitated me towards Black Squirrel Radio, was the ability that Black Squirrel radio gives. …  Because there was nothing you couldn’t say in their booth for two hours every week. And just knowing somebody out there was listening to my opinion is what it was all about.” 

After crossing the stage, students returned to their “pods,” or socially-distanced groups of four chairs, which was a safety measure implemented by the Flashes Safe Eight protocols put in place by the university.

Kent State’s response to the pandemic left many graduating seniors spending their last year learning from home. In her speech, Moore congratulated graduates Thursday for their ability to persevere through a global pandemic, national social unrest and academic obstacles. 

“We’ve had a remarkable year,” she said. “We managed to push through two semesters while adapting to new, virtual learning environments, and somehow we managed to finish degrees we started years ago.” Though online learning provided its own set of challenges for some, it offered a moment of clarity for others like Jordan Bigelow, who will be graduating Friday with a degree in fashion merchandising. 

While at home, Bigelow said the time away from distractions motivated her to branch out and try new things she might not have time for in a typical semester. 

“This pandemic allowed me to do so many things that … might have been more difficult if I were at school, just because of the other things that I was involved in,” she said.

Bigelow encapsulated the fashion experience at Kent State by combining lessons from fashion design, merchandising and textiles into her “own major.” For her creativity and integration of multiple areas of fashion in her case study, “The Unbought Collection,” she received the Virgil Abloh “Post-Modern” scholarship awarded by The Fashion Scholarship Fund.  Her work was inspired by Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the U.S. Congress in 1969.

Black representation has always been a huge part of her work, Bigelow said. Bigelow centered her study around “Black female Gen Z consumers,” and pulled inspiration from her interpretation of Chisholm’s campaign slogan “unbought and unbossed.“

“That means … being authentically you, not changing for anyone [and] fighting for whatever you believe in, because you see it as important,” she said. “If nobody else sees it, you see it.”

Kent State commencement ceremonies will continue through the end of the week, with the School of Podiatric Medicine’s virtual and in-person ceremonies to take place May 21. Each ceremony will be available to stream on the university’s commencement webpage Saturday morning.

For students like finance graduate Anne Ritts, commencement signified an entrance into Kent State’s newest chapter of alumni. 

“You are now an alumni at Kent State and Kent State’s close knit community, and it’s like your Kent State family,” she said. “As a Kent State alumni I can confidently say that I will be back. I would love to come back to Kent State and see what they do in a few years.” 

Annie Zwisler is managing editor. Contact her at [email protected].

Zaria Johnson is editor-in-chief. Contact her at [email protected]