Merced County Times Newspaper
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Merced College organizers revel in return of in-person graduations

By Luciana Chavez

Faculty won’t be high-fiving graduates as they enter Stadium ’76 on the Merced College campus. President Chris Vitelli won’t shake anyone’s hand as they cross the stage.

Blue Devils won’t graduate all at once, and they’ll have to wear masks, and there will be multiple ceremonies.

But by all that is good and holy — and with the blessing of the Merced County Public Health Department — there will be graduation in person at Merced College next month.

We only make light because the college had to cancel the in-person 2020 graduation due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the Office of the President and the Merced College Foundation broadcast a virtual ceremony and sent all 1,800 graduates a special graduation box.

The administration gave ASMC Student Activities Coordinator Shannon Gragg and Facilities, Events and Operations Manager Stacey Hicks the go-ahead to plan for 2021 in late March.

Gragg said she had been quietly watching the Merced College used books Facebook page, where students openly longed for an in-person ceremony, the entire year in between.

“Once I could, I let them know there’d be ceremonies for both the Classes of 2021 and 2020,” Gragg said. “We can tell students are happy. Knowing that makes me even happier.”

Added Hicks, “Some people have taken their entire adult lives to earn a diploma and have their families celebrate them. It will be amazing to be a part of that.”

Gragg has been the lead graduation planner at Merced College for 14 years. She says she tricked Hicks into helping 13 graduations ago.

Their combined experience has been invaluable as they prepare the May ceremonies, which will honor the Class of 2020 graduates on May 20 and the Class of 2021 on May 20 and 21.

County public health will allow 200 graduates on the football field and two guests each (400 total) in the football stands for each ceremony. While the college could have split the students by alphabetical order or department, it won’t. They’ve always allowed students to walk on Don Odishoo Field with their friends. Allowing them to choose their ceremony this year will keep that tradition alive.

To help keep names and dates straight, Gragg and Hicks have begun using a service called Marching Order. Instead of sending 2,000 handwritten registration postcard reminders like before, Marching Order emails each eligible student. Those who register can then submit their cell number and receive text updates.

“For us, logistically, it’s made everything easier,” Hicks said.

Also, prior to using Marching Order, they’d only ever counted graduation participants by the number of caps and gowns sold. “This will give us a perfect count,” Gragg said.

Instead of faculty reading out names, each graduate will also provide the pronunciation of their name through Marching Order, which then has the names recorded and syncs the clips to a bar code. When a graduate approaches the stage, they scan their code and their precisely pronounced name goes out over the PA.

They’ll next walk on stage, share a celebratory, safe, hands-free grin with Vitelli, descend the stage, stop and pose for a quick photo, and then walk back to their seat.

The college will also livestream every ceremony for family members who can’t attend.

“We’ve had to wrap our heads around the reality of that, that it’s what we have to do to stage graduation safely,” Hicks said.

The tag-team duo and their 20-30 volunteers will hustle to get everyone seated for each ceremony, and then Gragg and Hicks will exhale like every other year. In fact, talking about their process had Gragg and Hicks reminiscing about graduations past.

That time Hicks chased a dog from the field in the middle of the ceremony.

The emotional final keynote speech of longtime Merced College President Dr. Benjamin Duran.

The biblical rain that drenched everyone who showed up for the 2018 rehearsal.

Crying in 2019 while listening to the father of a Merced College student speak of the daughter he’d just lost. They were supposed to graduate together.

“It never gets old, no matter how many we do,” Hicks said.

“I’ve threatened to stop doing this for many years,” Gragg joked. “I’m getting too old, but no one will let me. I enjoy doing it so much.”

Everyone involved is brimming with anticipation for a that moment they experience every spring as each student crosses the stage.

Everyone on the dais sees it. The graduates don’t even know they’re doing it.

They’re smiling.

The smiles are huge, filled with joy and pride, a little confusion and plenty of nervous energy.

It blinds the receiver. Because it’s filled with hope for the future.

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