Under normal circumstances, few people would want to dress up just to stand in midday Texas heat with sweat beading on their foreheads. But face shields and shoe-polished vehicles tailgating in the San Jacinto College parking lot proved these were not normal circumstances.
Although COVID-19 changed the format, the medical radiography completion ceremony went off without a hitch May 14.
The event signaled the end of an unusual semester for the 31 spring graduates, who had been unsure of completing the program on time, much less celebrating together.
Completion date: TBD
Radiography students entered their final semester expecting to earn their associate degrees May 8, but when COVID-19 hit, that date was anyone's guess. County stay-at-home orders limited campus access, while health care providers nixed clinicals to protect students.
"Radiography is one of the front lines," student Brittany Dirnbauer said. "A lot of COVID patients require chest X-rays so doctors can check their lungs."
Without clinical opportunities and real patients, students still had to complete their remaining competencies, or X-ray positioning skills, to earn their degrees and qualify for the certification exam. Although concerned, students trusted faculty to find a solution.
Student Risa Walraven appreciated instructors' constant communication.
"They said, 'We'll get through this,'" Walraven said. "'We've never done this before, but we'll figure it out.'"
Faculty found a way for students not only to complete the program but to do it on time while meeting national registry and accreditation standards.
During finals week May 4-8, students participated in a small-group lab pilot at Central Campus. Wearing masks and social distancing, they staggered shifts to complete coursework and demonstrate final competencies.
Using real X-ray equipment on patient simulators in the skills lab still offered realistic challenges. At 125 pounds, the full-body radiographic phantoms, which contain bones and tissue substitutes, have to be adjusted manually.
"We had to figure out how to [show our competencies] — be creative, talk to them like a real person," Walraven said. "With real X-rays, you sometimes have to think outside the box since not everyone can move. Manikins help you do that."
As the radiography students finished on campus, one question dominated.
"During that week, almost every student asked if we would get to have the completion ceremony," Diane Zerbe, medical imaging department chair, said. "It was obvious this meant a lot to them."
Normally held in the campus auditorium, the celebration would have to look different because of COVID-19.
Zerbe worked with Dr. Rhonda Bell, Central Campus health and natural sciences dean, to reimagine the event. Their solution: A drive-in ceremony in the health science building parking lot.
In less than a week, Dr. Bell and program faculty pulled the event together with College events planner Kris Thompson and information technology, facilities, emergency management, and campus police departments.
The College provided face shields for all ceremony participants. In the middle of the parking lot stood the awards tables and podium, while traffic cones with name cards marked the spots where students and family could park on either side.
Behind lowered tailgates and unfolded lawn chairs, shoe-polished vehicles displayed messages like "Skeleton Squad 2020" and "You Did It!"
After a short program of several speeches, graduates stepped forward one by one to accept their completion certificates and awards. Face shields couldn't hide their grins and tears.
A fitting conclusion
Walraven reflects on spring 2020 with amazement and also a sigh of relief. When COVID-19 hit, the mom of 7-year-old twins found her already full plate spilling over.
"It wasn't just about my education anymore," she said. "It was insane. It was my education, my kids' education, and learning how to do it all from home."
Attending the ceremony meant everything to Walraven since she didn't plan to go to the College-wide commencement with her husband and kids.
"For me, it felt like it needed to happen," she said. "I now feel like a graduate."
For Dirnbauer, who received the Clinical Excellence Award, the event wrapped up five semesters of "blood, sweat, and tears" and countless memories.
"I thought at first that it would be OK if it had gotten canceled," she said. "But attending it I realized what it meant to me — even under the circumstances, not being able to hug my classmates."
Next step: Front lines
Although the radiography completion ceremony marked a milestone for graduates, it also served as a transition from student to active health care team member. Once students pass their certification exam, they will join health care professionals working around the clock to fight COVID-19.
During the program's final weeks, each graduate submitted a personal reflection on the pandemic as a health care student.
Zerbe chokes up remembering their responses: "Almost every student answered they were looking forward to being on the front lines helping with the crisis. I could not be prouder of them."