Jessica Canul, a graduating senior.

The graduating classes at Cal State University, Northridge were supposed to start to begin walking across the stage, accepting degrees and certificates, and toasting the completion of their academic pursuits.

But like all other colleges and universities, such a large gathering of people is not possible during the coronavirus pandemic. 

So university officials instead began the celebrations “virtually,” releasing a 13-plus minute video on May 16 to salute this year’s graduating class. The video will serve as a temporary stand-in for the actual ceremonies that will take place later this year.

“We surveyed the students last month about what they wanted to do about commencement, and they responded that they wanted to have an in-person celebration at a later date when it is safe to do so. So, we’re planning to do that,” said CSUN media spokeswoman Carmen Ramos Chandler.

Dr. Dianne F. Harrison, university president, praised the 11,790 students eligible for graduation, saying, “each of you has accomplished something that can never be taken away — your education. By advancing yourself, you elevate your families, your communities and your chosen field.

“You are trailblazers and leaders, and your impact on our world is needed more than ever. You all share a common trait: tenacity. Wars, natural disasters, and yes, even pandemics, have caused universities to cancel or postpone commencement ceremonies. You, too, have been impacted by a historic event this semester. Please know that CSUN looks forward to your [outdoor] commencement at some time in the future.”

Added William Watkins, vice president of student affairs and dean of students, “While we would enjoy the honor of being together on our beloved campus, participating in your commencement ceremony, we could not allow this moment to pass without marking your success in this virtual celebration tribute to you — each and every one of you.

“Indeed as we make every effort to commemorate your graduation in the future, we thought it essential to take this very moment to provide you with a message of cheer, and to applaud your efforts and achievement that this important milestone reflects.”

Representing the student body on the video was AS President Diana Vicente.

“This past year we’ve endured great hardships,” Vicente said. “I said it before and I’ll say it again: our students are hardworking, creating a new tradition. A tradition of success comes at a cost.

“This semester we needed to adapt. We needed to discover a ‘new normal,’ and overcome obstacles never before seen. It wasn’t easy. And as I look into our future, we have a long way to go. But I have no fear; I stand hopeful.”

Even if the graduating classes do get a regular outdoor celebration, this commencement in its own way still capped a most unusual final semester.

Victor Rojas, a journalism major, said he watched the video from his phone while in the car with friends. It was a “bittersweet” moment, he said. 

“You work this hard and you want that closure to spend with your family and loved ones,” said Rojas, 24, who lives in Los Angeles with his mother, a niece, two older sisters and a boyfriend of one of the sisters.

“It was something that unfortunately was taken away from us through no fault of our own. I thought [the video] was going to be longer. But you can’t really blame them for having a short ceremony. You just have to make the best of it.”

Jessica Canul, another journalism major, also described the video as “bittersweet.” She said she watched it alone in her family’s home in Hawthorne because she was unsure how she would respond to the program, and didn’t want others around her

“You want to be positive about everything,” said Canul, 21. “It was real, but also not real. There were very mixed feelings about watching the video, and knowing the following day (May 17) would have been my actual graduation, and actually walked across the stage.”

Rojas said he was happy to be able to finish his undergraduate degree despite the unique demands caused by the outbreak.

“When we first heard about the pandemic and how it would we have to finish up school, it was difficult to grasp,” he said. “Some of the classes were not structured for  this. But we were able to rise to the challenge. I’m glad I was able to finish strong. My motto was, ‘you have to turn this thing into a good thing.’”

Canul was also grateful she was able to compete her coursework. 

“There was a little more pressure [to finish] than I usually feel,” Canul said. “I always talked about it with my family how college was kinda ‘easy-breezy’ for me, in a sense. But…I was like in this huge hole where I felt confused. Working at home, trying to balance out my whole life in one space — it’s crazy.”

Rojas said he will continue to hope for a regular graduation although he doesn’t know when it might occur.

“It’s not just for me. It’s really for the families of the students who rode with us the whole way,” he said. “You did your job, you know what you earned, the hours you put in. The commencement is largely for the people who held it down for you, which is your family.”

Canul remains a bit skeptical that another ceremony will still take place. “I want to be confident, but at the same time I’m less confident (it will happen)” she said. “It seems everything is just all over the place. It’s like a promise that might not be kept.”

But she does want to have the actual outdoor ceremony to share with her parents and older sister. Because, Canul said, she’s learned a lesson about support from her family from this experience.

“I was at school so long, commuting so long, it almost felt like my family wasn’t there,” Canul said. “But they were always there. I’ll always remember they were there to remind me that, even though things change, I did graduate and earned my degree.”