June 02, 2020
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Coronavirus closed campus early. So we threw our own commencement.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Seniors Samuel Neil, center, and Derek Roberge, right, cheer as Dean of Students Robert Dana speaks during the "Coronamencement" in the Memorial Union at the University of Maine on Friday. "I wanted to say good-bye to all of these people. I love them," Neil said.

As of 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 14, three Maine residents have tested presumptive positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription

The week after I graduated high school in June 2016, my best friend and I loaded up her minivan and made the trek to Orono for our freshman orientation. We were 18, and we had all the time in the world ahead of us — 2020 hardly seemed like a real year. As we sat on the football field’s bleachers, surrounded by strangers, listening to speeches and fumbling our way through the Stein Song, it seemed like the next four years would stretch out forever.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Around 1,200 people gathered in the Memorial Union, University of Maine for a celebration they called "Coronamencement", for graduation seniors to say good-bye to their friends and to have a makeshift commencement. Organized by senior Sophia Palangas, nearly 400 certificates were given out at the ceremony.

Today, those strangers have become friends and coworkers, activists and leaders, student body presidents, and newspaper editors. And today, we may have said goodbye for the last time — two months earlier than we planned.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Around 1,200 people gathered in the Memorial Union, University of Maine for a celebration they called "Coronamencement", for graduation seniors to say good-bye to their friends and to have a makeshift commencement.

The coronavirus, COVID-19, has shaken up everyone’s way of life in a matter of weeks, and the students of UMaine are no exception. We found out Wednesday that our classes would shift entirely online and students living on campus would have to leave. For many students, their two months left in Orono turned into less than a week. Choirs, sports teams and clubs had to squeeze in their goodbyes before people left for break. Underclassmen, while disappointed, still get to come back to town in the fall and continue business as usual. The class of 2020 won’t have that chance.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
UMaine seniors Taylor Cray, left, and Lauren Ryan hug before names of graduating seniors in attendance were read  out loud and blank certificates were handed out during the makeshift commencement ceremony on Friday.

None of us wanted to go out like this. We didn’t want to say goodbye so soon. We wanted to walk across the stage at Alfond Arena and hug our families afterward.

[Here’s what has been canceled or postponed in Maine due to coronavirus]

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Around 1,200 people gathered in the Memorial Union, University of Maine for a celebration they called "Coronamencement", for graduation seniors to say good-bye to their friends and to have a makeshift commencement.

We wanted one more spring at the campus we’ve called home for the past four years — spreading out blankets on the mall to do our homework in the sunshine, stringing up hammocks outside the dorms, planting flower beds on Maine Day, opening classroom windows wide.

This isn’t how our senior year was meant to end. But we took our time to cry, and then in true UMaine fashion, we organized.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Around 1,200 people gathered in the Memorial Union, University of Maine for a celebration they called "Coronamencement", for graduation seniors to say good-bye to their friends and to have a makeshift commencement.

One senior, Sophia Palangas, started a small Facebook event to gather her friends together for one last goodbye. The plan was to gather on the steps of Fogler Library and hand out some printed-off diplomas. The idea caught on fast, and by this morning, more than 400 people had marked that they would attend.

If there’s one thing our class is great at, it’s making the most of a tough situation. The ceremony, which we collectively dubbed “Coronamencement,” only lasted about an hour, but it will mean so much to us forever.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Graduating seniors take selfies during their "Coronamencement" ceremony Friday afternoon at the Memorial Union.

Our class is massive. When we started college, we were UMaine’s largest incoming class with 2,300 students. We don’t all know each other — we’d need way more than four years for that — but that doesn’t matter. Today, we were all friends. Huddled in the Memorial Union, where we had to relocate because of the rain, we danced and cried and shared memories. One of our local bands, Midnight Breakfast, fronted by senior Jennifer Shevlin-Fernandes, played music to cheer us up. I fell back in with old friends like nothing had ever happened. We wrote our names on index cards, torn in quarters so that everyone could have one, to be read off as we accepted our certificates.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Robert Dana, dean of students, bumps elbows with senior Sydney Sansouci after her name was announced to receive her certificate. Sansouci said that the university closing campus for the remainder of the year has been devastating for a lot of students. "It's a really great showing," Sansouci said about the ceremony. "It shows how much we care about each other."

[Interactive map: The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in each state]

We lined up, snaking through the entire first floor of the Union, some decked out in cardboard caps and bathrobes, and others in their best dresses and suits. When it was my turn, I bumped elbows with Robert Dana, our dean of students — because handshakes are a no-go — and got my “degree,” hot off the presses.

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
After receiving their certificate, each senior was given a squirt of hand sanitizer at the "Coronamencement" ceremony on Friday.

At the bottom, it reads: “Your dedication and commitment to the community has not gone unrecognized. May time provide you the closure you deserve.”

[Do you have questions about the coronavirus? Ask us here.]

Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Linda Coan O'Kresik | BDN
Nearly 400 blank certificates were given out at the "Coronamencement" ceremony at the University of Maine on Friday. Any graduating senior that attended wrote their name on a piece of paper so everyone's name was read out loud as they received their certificate.

No one knows yet whether our official commencement will be canceled. Ultimately, though, it’s not the ceremony that matters. It’s about celebrating our accomplishments and the community we’ve built, and by those standards, our homemade graduation was more than enough.

Hailey Bryant is a part-time digital editor with the Bangor Daily News.

 

 


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