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Northern Arizona University hosts virtual commencement
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Northern Arizona University hosts virtual commencement

Northern Arizona University had a record-breaking 6,000 graduates Friday, but this year, there were some noticeable differences in the conferring of these many degrees.

No waves of navy blue robes streaming throughout the NAU campus. No “Pomp and Circumstance” to signal the beginning of the traditionally lengthy ceremony. No illicit air horns from excited families echoing through the Skydome as their graduate’s name was called. No graduation weekend traffic on Milton Road or families filling up local restaurants.

In a letter to campus dated March 24 responding to COVID-19, the university announced the cancellation of all spring commencement-related activities. This semester’s graduating students were also invited to walk in a special ceremony in December.

The virtual ceremony itself, which was made available at 11 a.m. Friday, lasted 18 minutes as President Rita Cheng conferred degrees by types: first doctoral, then master’s, then bachelor’s. On its virtual commencement webpage, the university also shared short video messages from the Associated Students of NAU, Graduate Student Government, Alumni Association and the Arizona Board of Regents.

Cheng and most other ceremony speakers were dressed in full regalia as they congratulated the many graduates of the Class of 2020 for achieving their degree and, more than anything, their resilience as the university adapted to the COVID-19 situation.

“It will be your generation, equipped with the knowledge you’ve gained and tested in a way many past classes have not, that will lead to the new beginning,” Cheng said in her video address to the students. “I am confident in your ability to rise to this challenge and ask that you use your degree and this experience to make a difference in the world.”

In its breakdown of the graduating class, NAU reported 915 graduate students joining the more than 5,000 undergraduates. The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences had the most graduates overall, at 1,379 students, followed by the College of Health and Human Services at 912.

Some faculty as well as many colleges also individually shared video messages for their graduating students.

Among the class of 2020, the excitement was as present as the disappointment.

“Our college careers aren’t defined by the past two months, they’re defined by the years we put into our studies. We worked hard to get to this moment,” said Ronni Marks, President of the Associated Students of Northern Arizona University, in her video speech.

Sierra White, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Philosophy, Politics and Law and was awarded a Gold Axe Award for outstanding achievements, said the virtual ceremony was “anticlimactic” and not what she expected, especially regarding the lack of reading off graduates’ names. Instead, students and families could search the commencement website by college, degree or name to hear a quick audio clip of their graduate’s name, as well as any distinctions.

“It has been an extremely challenging year, especially with the transition to online classes,” White said in a Facebook message. “I feel like I really missed out on several ceremonies and events that would have happened for seniors any other semester.”

Nevertheless, White remained thankful for the involvement she was able to achieve during her time on campus, as well as the people she met. She said she hopes to return for the ceremony in December, pending finances and the location she selects for graduate school.

“It still would not be the same,” White said.

Sharing pictures in their caps and gowns, other graduates on social media echoed the same sentiments.

“Not at all how I imagined it,” one graduate shared. “But nevertheless I DID IT!!!”

“Instead of walking across the stage today, I’m stuck at home due to a canceled graduation,” another wrote. “But still, I can finally say I did it.”

The virtual commencement will be available online throughout the summer at

Kaitlin Olson can be reached at the office at or by phone at (928) 556-2253.

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