The NRG Stadium floor usually looks like a sea of black caps and gowns during San Jacinto College's commencement ceremony.
But on May 15, the sea spread even wider as both graduating classes of 2020 joined spring 2021 graduates. Seated six feet apart, students celebrated the College's first in-person ceremonies since COVID-19 became a household word.
Largest turnout ever
Between the two ceremonies this year, 1,671 total graduates walked, and more than 18,000 guests filled the stands.
Before this, San Jac's largest graduation ceremony ever drew under 1,200 students. Despite COVID-19, graduates jumped at the chance to accept their diplomas in person.
According to Tami Kelly, dean of student development, even more graduates would have attended except the venue required a list of RSVPs in advance and no late applicants to allow for safe social distancing.
"I think it was just the idea that they had not had an opportunity to do this kind of thing [in a while] that made everyone want to come out and celebrate," Kelly said.
Addressing graduates, Chancellor Dr. Brenda Hellyer acknowledged how the pandemic had changed the way "we teach, how we've learned and interacted with each other."
"We've done things we didn't know we could do, and we've done them successfully, and here you are today," Hellyer said.
She also recognized 2020 graduates returning to celebrate: "Because of the pandemic, their commencement ceremonies were held virtually, and we made a promise to invite you to today's ceremony. We're so glad many of you chose to be here to celebrate with us."
Total number of students earning degrees or certificates from San Jac in 2020 and spring 2021 was 7,382.
Handshakes, hugs, and fist bumps
The College's first ceremony honored Associate of Arts and Associate of Arts in teaching graduates, and the second ceremony Associate of Science, Associate of Applied Science, and certificate of technology graduates.
In the aisles between spaced-out chairs, friends clumped together for photos, some pulling down masks to reveal smiles that had been hiding for months behind layers of fabric.
As in pre-COVID ceremonies, some graduates made statements through showstopping stilettos and bejeweled mortarboards.
But for the first time ever, many also expressed themselves through masks. Face coverings displayed everything from sequins and leopard print to logos for technical societies and transfer universities.
The ceremonies brimmed with poignant moments. Hellyer told both groups she was vaccinated and would celebrate with graduates however they felt comfortable as they walked across the stage.
True to her word, the Chancellor shook hands, hugged, and fist-bumped students, pausing only to rub sanitizer on her hands between each graduate.
A walk to remember
As graduates' names boomed over the loudspeakers, excitement rippled across the floor to the stands, where family and other guests — also spaced out — cheered. One group held up a poster with the painted message: "Congrats, Ariadna! You're one smart cookie [drawing of cookie]."
For Norali Romero, the day represented a huge achievement: earning her business management associate degree alongside her high school diploma. She did all this in four years that included Hurricane Harvey, social upheaval, and a global pandemic.
Romero reflected on celebrating side by side with her peers. Above her black face mask with "Norali" and "2021" printed in gold on opposite sides, her eyes showed both calm and emotion.
"I know my family's proud, and my culture is proud of me," she said. "I feel very happy to be here in person, being able to see everyone's faces — something a year ago that we didn't think would be possible."
After getting laid off from an unfulfilling sales job because of COVID-19, Roussell decided to reskill. Coming from a family of plant operators, he pursued San Jac's process technology program and landed a full scholarship as a Siemens Technical Scholar.
Walking this spring meant celebrating his entrance into a new field and his highest GPA ever — 3.9.
"I feel for those people who had to go through their graduation and not be able to walk," Roussell said. "I was getting worried myself that we weren't going to be able to do it this year. I wanted to do it this time because now I feel different. I've never been a part of a college like San Jac."