Crossing the stage: Returning alum eager to experience in-person commencement

University to hold four smaller ceremonies for graduates only
Returning to the UW-Stout campus to attend an in-person graduation is a joy for many alumni who missed one because of the COVID-19 pandemic. / UW-Stout photo
Pam Powers | May 3, 2021

When Danielle Conlon received the email last spring notifying her the in-person May 2020 graduation ceremony was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, she cried. The tears fell as if she had lost a beloved family member or friend.

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Danielle Conlon photo / Photo contribued by Danielle Conlon

“I was devastated,” said Conlon, of Oconto, adding that the emotion she felt shocked her. “Finishing school was a huge accomplishment for me and walking in my graduation ceremony was to be a huge celebration. Having that ceremony canceled literally felt like a piece of my heart was ripped out, almost as though a loved one had passed away. It hurt that much. There was no celebrating, there was no closure. It was like here is this huge accomplishment, but it really doesn’t matter — just go about your life, business as usual. I broke down. I couldn’t keep it in. I  sobbed.”

Conlon’s family gathered around her and hugged her until her tears dried.

This year Conlon, who graduated with an online degree in information and communication technologies, gets the opportunity to put on a robe and mortarboard and walk across the commencement stage on Saturday, May 8, at Johnson Fieldhouse. UW-Stout has invited back 2020 graduates who weren’t able to experience an in-person ceremony, and about 55 plan to return.

Four commencement ceremonies will be held:

Because of ongoing COVID-19 safety protocols, no family, other guests or spectators will be allowed. They will, however, be able to watch livestream broadcasts of the ceremonies.  

A virtual ceremony, similar to the ceremonies held in May and December 2020, also will be held for all graduates not taking part in the small, in-person ceremonies. The virtual ceremony will premiere at 10 a.m. on the university YouTube channel and commencement website.

 

Juanita Carter photo
Juanita McCarter photo / Photo courtesy of Juanita McCarter

“Earning my degree means the world to me,” said Conlon, who works as a customer service team lead at RGL Logistics. of Green Bay. “I decided to return to walk in this year’s ceremony in hopes of getting some of that closure that I didn’t get last year. So much of that emotion is still there. I'm not sure if I will get closure, or what it will be like since it still won't be a traditional graduation ceremony with my family in the audience. I do wish they could be there, but I don't want to regret not walking, so I am going to walk.”

Conlon is studying to earn her Salesforce Administrator Certification and is considering at some point pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership.

Juanita McCarter, a May 2020 graduate in human development and family studies, is planning on returning to commencement on May 8 as well.

“I decided to do the in-person ceremony because I am the first in my family to ever graduate from any higher education school,” McCarter said, noting she wishes her family could be there in person too. “When walking I will be thinking about my future in my field. I am very excited to still be able to participate in a walking ceremony because this is something that my whole family and I have been looking forward to.”

After earning her degree, McCarter, of Ladysmith, has been working as a respite provider at United Cerebral Palsy in Rusk County. In August, she will move to Scotland to continue her education at the University of Edinburgh studying for a master’s degree in social work.

 

Greg Benz
Greg Benz photo / Photo courtesy Greg Benz

McCarter transferred to UW-Stout after two years at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Transferring to UW-Stout was the right decision for her, McCarter said. “UW-Stout was more hands-on than my previous university and has smaller class sizes,” she said. “That helped me gain a better relationship with all my professors.”

Greg Benz, of Waunakee, who earned his doctorate in career and technical education last spring, also plans to return to walk with two friends. Ryan Ubersox earned his doctorate in CTE this spring, and Pete McConnell graduated with his master’s degree in CTE last spring.

They want a photo of the three of them in graduation regalia. “I already am looking forward to that cherished picture,” Benz said. “I wanted my young daughters to see why daddy was always doing homework.”

Benz, who is the CTE coordinator for the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, said he is pleased graduates have the opportunity to attend an in-person graduation and celebrate their work and accomplishments.

“I am passionate about career and technical education,” Benz said. “It opens so many doorways for students regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic backgrounds. UW-Stout has done an excellent job growing my knowledge of CTE and allowed me to better serve the students in my district. CTE gives me a purpose in life, and UW-Stout has been a major part of that.”

 

Sarah Windisch photo
Sarah Windisch photo / Photo courtesy Sarah Windisch

Sarah Windisch, of Stillwater, Minn., earned her packaging degree in December 2020 and plans to return May 8 to cross the graduation stage.

“It was a huge decision for me to go back to school for a second bachelor’s degree,” said Windisch, who has a BFA in graphic design from the University of Minnesota. “I worked extremely hard to earn A’s in all of my classes so I could graduate with honors and walk across the stage with honor cordons around my neck. I feel I owe it to myself in honor of my achievements and successes. I have earned it.”

Windisch is a packaging engineer for Boston Scientific in Maple Grove, Minn., a medical device company.

“UW-Stout gave me the tools I needed to succeed both inside and outside of the classroom,” Windisch said. “I loved the faculty and staff that made it all possible. I am not sure if I could have achieved my goals without their support.”


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