Graduation dreams for a 17-year-old Margaret Peterson when she started at Mount Mercy University three years ago involved a walk across the stage, diploma grab and tassel turn — the commencement works.
“This is not how any of us imagined,” Peterson, now 20, said in her brief application to be Mount Mercy’s student commencement speaker for this first-of-its-kind, online-only graduation.
But she — along with Mount Mercy’s other 380-some undergraduates and 170 graduate students receiving degrees this Sunday — had their commencement visions upended in March with the swift arrival of COVID-19, shuttering campuses, canceling events and curtailing most aspects of “normal life.”
“We cannot forget all the lasts that we missed out on,” Peterson wrote in her commencement-speaker pitch. “That last sports competition, that last music performance, that last all-nighter with your friends, that last time to say goodbye to the professors who helped make you the person you are today.
“We end our time at (Mount Mercy) with a set of lasts that we will never get to experience. But today marks the start of a whole lot more firsts,” she wrote, striking a positive note that administrators said captured the campus spirit and landed her the speaking gig.
A commencement committee for the Cedar Rapids-based private Catholic university uses a blind selection process to choose its student speaker from a collection of applications. And Nate Klein, vice president for student success, told The Gazette the committee was “delighted” to learn it had chosen Peterson, “who has been very involved on our campus in several leadership roles.”
In addition to serving as president of the MMU A Cappella group, vice president of the Law & Politics Club and member of the Academic Integrity Committee, she served as co-president of the campus’ LGBTQ+ Alliance, which she helped revive on the Catholic campus.
“It’s been a little tricky navigating and trying to have an LGBTQ group on such a Catholic campus,” she said. “But we have the Sisters of Mercy who live on campus with us, and they preach those mercy values of compassion and acceptance and love. And I really felt that.”
In addition to her leadership roles, Peterson helped organize several campus events — like Halloween on the Hill, Rainbow Fest and the Safe Zone forum.
In her speech this weekend, Peterson said she will focus on the broader issues facing all her graduating peers — like the vast uncertainty of this new coronavirus-plagued economy — and how their collegiate experience prepared them for it.
“Mount Mercy has pushed me to be a lifelong learner and to believe in myself,” Peterson said. “She taught me compassion. She taught me to be a leader. And I’m forever grateful for that.”
Her post-graduation plans, like so many others, already have been delayed, as she was supposed to leave for Kosovo with the Peace Corps later this month. Instead, Peterson aims to work locally and wait for travel restrictions to lift.
Cornell, COE ONLINE
In addition to Mount Mercy, other private and public colleges and universities across Iowa continue their virtual celebrations this weekend — like the University of Iowa on Saturday and Mount Vernon’s Cornell College, which will hold its online commencement Sunday via Facebook.
The Cornell event will be a “non-traditional ceremony mixing live and recorded segments and an interactive chat.”
“We know this has been a tough time for all of our graduating seniors, and we wish the environment were different such that we could have everyone on campus this May to celebrate their many accomplishments,” Cornell President Jonathan Brand. “This will be a way we can start the celebration, and we’ll continue it when we can all be together again for the in-person ceremony.”
Many colleges and universities have invited this spring’s graduates to return to their respective campuses for a later in-person graduation.
Coe College in Cedar Rapids, like others, has posted commencement addresses on its website in lieu of the in-person speeches graduates missed this spring.
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“I may be speaking to you through video, but that doesn’t change the fact that your graduation from Coe is a singular event in the life of the college, one that we will long remember,” Coe President David McInally said in a prerecorded address, backdropped by “Pomp and Circumstance.”
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