A warm welcome back
Wanting a graduation worthy of their accomplishments, the class of 2020 received a post-COVID ceremony that delivered compassion, celebration and closure.
Published: November 3, 2022 / Author: Katie Rose Quandt
In March 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold across the country, University of Notre Dame students were alerted not to return to campus after spring break. They completed the semester remotely — which left many in the Class of 2020 feeling a lack of closure.
That closure finally came Memorial Day weekend 2022, when the Class of 2020 returned to campus for a long overdue graduation celebration.
On that Saturday morning, about 500 undergraduate and graduate Mendoza alumni gathered for brunch and an open Champagne bar in the Joyce Center fieldhouse, along with about 1,500 family and friends. Throughout the two-hour event, graduates were announced and walked across the stage in cap and gown, to the cheers and celebration of their classmates and loved ones.
But behind the scenes, the weekend’s picture-perfect ceremony was the result of significant last-minute scrambling.
As the graduation weekend approached, Mendoza’s plans were set: The College would celebrate with an informal brunch celebration. Class members had filled out a survey in 2021, expressing preferences for a simple graduation event that gave them a chance to get together again. (Initial plans for a 2021 celebration were then postponed due to continuing COVID concerns). Other colleges across campus had received similar feedback from their alumni, and were planning non-elaborate events.
But as the celebration grew nearer, it became clear that the Mendoza Class of 2020 was hoping for something more. Specifically, they wanted that quintessential rite of passage — to walk across that stage.
Katelin Walsch (MNA ‘20) said she and her roommate — both members of the first on-campus cohort in the Master in Nonprofit Administration — were disappointed when they realized they would not be walking.
“When you think of graduating — in the movies, in real life — you think of somebody walking across the stage,” said Walsch. “The idea of graduation, to me, was always associated with walking. I think that the ceremony is something that people should be afforded the opportunity to do, if they want to.” In particular, she said, she felt for the undergraduate Class of 2020, who had already missed out on so much.
After gathering feedback from other alumni, Walsch and other members of her program reached out to Mendoza’s Director of Alumni Relations, Ryan Retartha (ND ’07), with their concerns, requesting that the program be amended to include walking across the stage. “They were very emphatic and very unified in their sentiment that this is what their entire cohort wanted,” said Retartha. “It’s what their entire cohort expected.”
It was late in the game to make changes to a rapidly approaching, 2,000-person event. But Retartha wanted the celebration to live up to the expectations of the graduates. He found further evidence of the Class of 2020’s dedication in the mounting list of RSVPs. While Mendoza staff initially estimated a turnout of 15% to 25%, ultimately more than half of the class attended, including many international students and their families.
It was clear the graduation event was meaningful.
“I tried to put myself in the shoes of the alumni,” Retartha said. “I just reminded myself: This event is for them. The only reason we went through the effort to do this commencement weekend, two years after the fact, was for these alumni and their families. So, if we could provide them with the experience that they wanted, I just felt like we owed it to them to meet their expectations.”
It was a scramble to the finish. After verifying with the Office of the Registrar that it was possible to add a stage and additional programming, Retartha took up the conversation with Mendoza leadership. Ultimately, they decided that holding a ceremony that matched the hopes of the alumni was worth the additional work, cost and risk of last-minute hiccups. Retartha ordered a stage, a podium with a seal, microphones and flowers. He secured a photographer and a priest to give the invocation, and convinced additional Mendoza staff to help coordinate the walking ceremony.
The end result was a unique, celebratory event that honored the resilience and passion of the Class of 2020. As graduates and their families filed into the fieldhouse on the beautiful, warm day, they were greeted by ushers, as well as a mountain of 2,000 custom tote bags and prints for everyone of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” one of Mendoza Dean Martjin Cremers’ favorite pieces of art. Ten-top tables, adorned with yellow flowers, stretched across the expanse of the fieldhouse. Along the edges of the large space were a giant Champagne bar, brunch stations and rows of bistro tables marked by degree program to create an easy mingling space.
While enjoying brunch with their friends and family, alumni who wanted to walk across the stage filled out information cards in advance. Table by table, graduates walked across the stage as their names and programs were called. On stage, they shook hands with Dean Cremers and posed for a photo.
Many alumni planned to walk and wore their own caps and gowns throughout the event. Mendoza had extras on hand in case anyone changed their mind and decided to walk at the last minute. Many did.
“We didn’t really know how many would want to walk,” Retartha said. “I was nervous that we weren’t going to be able to call the names in time. We had two hours so it was a tight window.” But everything went smoothly.
“At the end of the day, I’d be shocked if I didn’t call 500 names,” he said. “Everybody got into the spirit, once we got going.”
“What was great about it was just how intimate it ended up becoming,” he recalled. “As we would call up these rows of tables, the families would come down front, to get up close and to take their own photos. And that typically wouldn’t be allowed. It really wouldn’t be the vibe during a formal diploma ceremony. You know: ‘Everybody stay seated, hold your applause until the end, no photos, please.’ So, the fact that it was a little bit more of a casual event led to some really poignant moments around the stage.”
Walsch wasn’t surprised that so many people opted to walk. “When you see somebody walk across the stage, and you see their parents and their families, and their fellow classmates, and they’re cheering them on, yelling out their name, clapping, celebrating with them — I think that that really fosters that Notre Dame spirit of family and camaraderie,” she said. “And once other people saw that, they were quick to jump on.”
The unique flavor of the event — part formal graduation ceremony, part informal reunion and celebration with loved ones — created a special and memorable ambiance.
Instead of sitting silently through hundreds of names, guests were able to talk, eat and sip Champagne throughout the event. “The casual nature, the banquet style — this allowed for it to still feel like a really vibrant social event, even though we were having these very special moments on stage,” said Retartha.
“It was a very, very positive atmosphere,” said Mary Coghlin (MBA ‘20), who attended as both a graduate and in her role as associate director of Graduate Business Career Development. “Some people hadn’t seen each other since March 2020, so there were a lot of excited reunions. It was very full, very vibrant.”
“It was great to have everybody back,” said Walsch. Her cohort keeps in touch with a group chat, she said, “But I haven’t seen some of my classmates since before spring break 2020. And our lives have changed so drastically since. It was great to catch up and see what everybody’s up to now. And, you know, it was just fun.”
As it turned out, Mendoza wasn’t the only college to make last-minute changes to its celebration plans. As the weekend approached, alumni from other colleges heard about the changes to Mendoza’s program, and successfully advocated for formal elements to be added to their events as well.
“Mendoza was happy to lead from the front on that,” said Retartha. “We were proud of the fact that we were the first ones to recognize this change in sentiment. And we’re really proud of the fact that we led our peers in terms of rising to meet this challenge and to meet the expectations of our alumni.”
He expressed gratitude for various Notre Dame staff coming together to make the event possible — from University Registrar Chuck Hurley, who was “such a phenomenal partner in this whole journey,” to the Mendoza staff who gave up their Saturday to help with the name cards, to Dean Cremers, who shook hundreds of hands and posed for hundreds of pictures. “He leaned into it as much as we all did,” said Retartha.
It was a graduation ceremony as unique as the experiences of the Class of 2020. When Notre Dame went remote during spring break, “students left their medications, they left their textbooks, they left their clothes,” said Retartha. “They didn’t get a chance to move out of their dorms until midway through that summer. It was a very difficult, traumatic experience for them. And that was just another reason why we wanted to lean in with empathy, and with compassion, and with kindness, just out of respect for what they had gone through, and what their families had gone through.”
For Walsch, walking across the stage was particularly meaningful. She and her roommate “both have relatives who have passed, who went to Notre Dame, who had always dreamt of us going to Notre Dame and graduating.”
“It ended up a really positive experience,” said Walsch. “I was super grateful to Ryan and to Dean Cremers. It was a really big last minute addition and change. So, we were thrilled and very grateful.”