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Penn State Graduates Smile Through Their Blight of Passage

by on May 07, 2020 4:45 AM


April 29 was a very nice spring day in Happy Valley.  A day when the line for photos in cap and gown normally would have extended at least 50 yards from the Nittany Lion Shrine.  

That’s why I was a bit surprised to see just two female graduates beside the Lion that afternoon, taking photos of each other in their graduation garb. But then again, I certainly wasn’t shocked. If the COVID-19 pandemic could wipe out other Penn State rites of passage—like in-person commencement—why not the tradition of taking photos with the Lion? 

Maintaining the proper social distancing, I asked these two women how it felt to have the stately Nittany Lion all to themselves. “Yeah, definitely no line at the Lion,” said Kayleigh Shrader, a native of West Chester. “Or anywhere else you want to take pictures.”  

“It definitely feels weird,” added Emily Guido, Shrader’s roommate from New Jersey. But even though Guido noted that all graduation activities have been altered, she’s OK with that.  

“I don’t think there’s ever long enough at Penn State,” she said. “Regardless if it ended right after spring break or if it ended in May, I feel like I would be just as upset. It’s been the best four years I could possibly have, and I don’t think anything else will ever compare to it.” 

Well, that was last Wednesday. So you can imagine my surprise—yes, this time I was shocked—to see a huge line alongside the Lion on Saturday. Only three days had passed, and now I’m looking at a queue of 50-60 people — despite the statewide stay-at-home order still in effect and Penn State’s urging of students not to return to State College. The university, likely anticipating those exhortations would be ignored to some degree, previously placed social distancing markers near the shrine, though still implored people to wait for a future photo date.

So it looked like the good old days, at least, but how come? For one, the weather had gotten even nicer, and of course, a Saturday is more conducive to visits from Mom and Dad who want to share in a photo op.  

“People are just trying to enjoy their graduation pictures as much as they can,” said Mickey Frazetta, a kinesiology graduate from Pittsburgh. “At least they’re staying away from each other and no one is shaking hands.” 


Like the two women I met last Wednesday, the Saturday group was philosophical about changes in their graduation celebrations.  

Said Jason Miller, a graduate from Connecticut, “I think Penn State has done the best they could have under the circumstances. A virtual graduation ceremony doesn’t compare with a regular graduation, but it’s the best they can do.” 

Added Kasey Smith, a nursing graduate from Altoona, “I’m definitely sad about it. ‘Sad’ is the overarching feeling because you work your whole four years to be able to walk at graduation. I’m hopeful it (the virus) will go away and future classes can have their graduations.”


Although the photo line on Saturday was interspersed by 6-foot gaps, no one was talking about COVID-19. Instead, they were focused on happy memories from four years at Penn State.  And their only regret was that the sudden cancellation of in-person classes had robbed them of opportunities to say good-bye to many friends. 

To a person, everyone I spoke with was ready to talk about their made-at-PSU friendships.  For example:

  • Miller, a student in aerospace engineering, said, “The friendships I made here will last the rest of my life, and you can’t really value anything higher.” 

  • Frazetta said, “The overall atmosphere of students at Penn State…it has its own personality.  Everyone loves being here.”

  • Chris Madeira, a finance major from the Pittsburgh area, remembered how his youth pastor told him just before he entered Penn State as a freshman that he was about to make the best friendships of his life. “That was so true from day one that I was here,” Madeira said. “The friendships that are going to last a lifetime are truly the best part.” 


THON came up frequently as graduates reflected on their time in Happy Valley. Frazetta mentioned the mammoth fundraiser as his best collegiate memory, and he stressed his gratitude that Penn State’s lockdown wasn’t necessary until after THON.  “All of this happened a couple weeks after THON,” he said, “so that was good.”  

Thomas Droege, a graduating senior from Boyertown, noted that a virtual commencement won’t dampen his memories of Penn State but a cancellation of THON 2020 would have done exactly that. “If this (the campus lockdown) would have happened earlier, it would have almost ruined my three or four years here. I’m a big THON person. It’s a fantastic organization, and I loved being part of it and giving back. My only regret at Penn State was that I did not join a THON committee my freshman year.”


Penn State offers a vast number of other extra-curricular activities, and most of those groups met rather effectively through Zoom in March and April. I talked to several participants in Cru, an interdenominational Christian group, and they said Zoom provided most of what was needed—except for an optimal way to bid friends adieu. 

Madeira, a graduating Cru member, said the organization’s last meeting of the year was meaningful.  But, he added, “It would have been awesome to meet in-person, to give the hugs good-bye and to have the final conversations with underclassmen.” 

Tom Sperlich serves as a staff advisor for the Penn State Cru group, and his goal for the last meeting was that the organization’s 15 or so graduating seniors would “feel blessed in knowing they had made an impact on other people.”  

Apparently, the meeting was successful, even with its electronic limitations. “I was holding back tears,” said Sperlich, himself a 2006 graduate of Penn State. “I wasn’t expecting such a rich emotional connection to happen over Zoom, but it did. I guess the Lord can make that happen whether we’re together physically or not.” 


Saturday will be an historic day for the Pennsylvania State University. Beginning at 2 p.m., the university will hold its first virtual commencement ceremony for undergraduate students at all PSU campuses and for graduate students in The Graduate School. This streamed presentation  will honor more than 14,000 students and will feature formal remarks, musical performances and sharable slides to recognize each of the graduates. 

No doubt, Shrader will be among the graduates who are watching. Standing beside the Lion statue, she summarized her time at Penn State with these words: “It was life-changing.  I met some of the best people.  People say it will be the best four years of your life. Honestly, it was the best four years. I would give anything to go back to freshman year and be able to do it again.”


Bill Horlacher is a native of Happy Valley, a 1970 graduate of State College High School and a 1974 graduate of Penn State (journalism). He has spent his last 30 years in service to international students, helping them with personal, cultural and spiritual adjustments to America. After 39 years of living in California, Maryland and Texas, Bill returned to State College in 2013 along with his wife, Kathy.
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