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‘Unforgettable’ commencement at FedExField for Catholic University grads

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After a year of social distancing, virtual meetings and limited capacity events, The Catholic University of America in Washington’s Class of 2021 was able to celebrate together during the commencement ceremonies at FedExField in Landover, Md., May 15. 

Traditionally, commencement took place on the university mall, facing the east portico of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington. This year, the venue changed to accommodate social distancing for graduates and their families. 

Students sat socially distanced on the football field where the Washington Football Team plays. Instead of a procession, the students’ names scrolled around the stadium scoreboard. Because of the space of the new venue, each graduate was permitted to invite up to four guests. The event was livestreamed for those who could not attend in person. 

New graduate Nellie Adams, who received her bachelor’s in theology, said she was thankful for the day’s event, even with the change in location. This past fall, she was working on campus as a student leader for first-year students and she wasn’t sure if commencement was going to happen. 

“We’re so grateful for everyone who did this,” she said. “Having the basilica background for our ceremony would have been nice, but this will be unforgettable.” 

Among the students, faculty and staff working to keep the day’s event running smoothly was Jennifer Paxton, professor of history and director of the university’s honors program. Remarking on the day’s location, she said it was “fitting that we’re ending this unique year in a unique way.

“When life hands you a challenge like this past year, you have to lean in and embrace the experience,” Paxton said. Referring to the university’s events team that organized the ceremony, she said, “It took some people with vision and they had to work really hard to pull this off. The amount of work that went on behind the scenes to make this happen was amazing and they did it all for the students and their families.” 

Shane MacDonald, special collections archivist for the university archives, received his master’s in library and information science. As part of his work as an archivist, MacDonald has been collecting information about experiences of members of the university community during the pandemic. Now, he said, he was grateful to be living a unique moment in university history for himself. 

“It’s not often you can say you’ve been to an NFL stadium for a graduation like this,” he said. “It’s such a unique venue that no other graduating class has experienced or will probably experience again. So, in that sense, it’s very special.” 

MacDonald said he was also grateful for an opportunity to be a part of a big celebration after a year of social distancing. 

“This is my first real event in a year other than going to work or the grocery store,” he said. “This is a special way to ease back into the world, with a celebration after a year of all of us working hard and struggling to get to this point.” 

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2021