KU classes of 2020, 2021 ‘persevered’ through pandemic to earn degrees

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

University of Kansas graduates walk down the Campanile hill during a graduation ceremony honoring both KU's Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 on Sunday, May 23, 2021, on the KU campus.

For Lauren Klapper, the highlight of Sunday’s University of Kansas combined 2020 and 2021 commencement ceremony was its opening act.

“Walking down the hill,” the 2020 graduate from Kansas City, Kan., said of the traditional walk from the Campanile down to David Booth Kansas Memorial Stadium. “It’s such a unique tradition at KU. I wanted to experience it.”

Although a common theme from speakers was the difficulties facing students over the last 15 months because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Klapper found employment easily as a graduate in human biology with a concentration in anthropology. Klapper now works for the Jackson County, Mo., Health Department.

“It’s the good time to be in health-related fields,” she said.

In a video address to the graduates, Bill Kurtis, one of three people presented honorary doctoral degrees, spoke of his early misgivings about his choice to major in broadcast journalism. That all changed as he covered live the 1966 Topeka tornado — work that earned him a job in Chicago three weeks later and launched a career in network news. The graduates were now in the same position he was once in. As degree recipients, if they apply themselves and their learning, they can improve public health, fight global warming and bring those stories to the public, Kurtis said.

About 2,900 chairs were made available on the football field for the combined commencements, and the graduates filled about two-thirds of the chairs.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

University of Kansas graduates sing the Rock Chalk chant Sunday, May 23, 2021, in Memorial Stadium at the close of their graduation ceremony honoring both KU’s Class of 2020 and Class of 2021.

Commencement ceremonies were first postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic last year and then again for thunderstorms on May 16. Although an occasional sprinkle fell during the ceremonies Sunday, no rain developed from the dark sky.

Rain or shine, the entire commencement was special for Mady Brown. After earning her degree in political science last spring, she is now going to graduate school at the University of Wisconsin, studying social work.

“It’s nice to be back on campus,” she said.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

Two University of Kansas graduates celebrate Sunday, May 23, 2021, after their degrees were conferred during a graduation ceremony Sunday in Memorial Stadium. The ceremony honored both KU’s Class of 2020 and Class of 2021.

As graduates looked forward to the future, they were also saying goodbye to friends. Cody Hutton, a 2020 graduate in accounting and current KU graduate student, said his thoughts were on the difficulties that his friends and classmates faced the last 15 months.

“A lot of people struggled,” he said. “I really didn’t expect it would be so hard.”

The commencement was a way of also celebrating the ending of the pandemic, Hutton said.

Earving Morales, of Topeka, said as he walked to his seat with 2020 classmates that family played a big role in why he attended the commencement. KU Chancellor Douglas Girod told the graduates and their families that the university was able to have the ceremony because of the work of former KU Medical School graduate Barney Graham, who received an honorary degree during a visit last week. Graham now works at the National Institutes of Health as deputy of the viral research center and chief of the pathogenesis lab. His work was used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

A KU graduate spots some friends in the Memorial Stadium stands Sunday, May 23, 2021, during a graduation ceremony honoring both KU’s Class of 2020 and Class of 2021.

Girod said the 2020 and 2021 graduates shared the disruption of the pandemic but persevered to earn their degrees. He urged them to be engaged in their communities, saying there was no scale too small for engagement.

In his video address to the students, former KU art professor Roger Shimomura, who also received an honorary degree, expanded on the KU community. A KU art professor from 1969 to 2004, Shimomura related two encounters. The first involved a farmer he ran across at an rural auction who couldn’t accept that Shimomura was truly American. The art he created from that encounter was later accepted for a show in Seattle, where one of the show’s organizers could only see the work as Japanese, missing the American context of its creation.

KU gave him an escape from such narrow-minded world views, Shimomura said. What he took away from his years at KU is that it is a diverse and tolerant community, he said.

Friendliness has meant a lot to the graduates. Nick Dahl, of Leawood and a 2021 graduate in finance, said he attended the commencement to celebrate completing four years of hard work and study, and it was special to attend the ceremonies with friends and classmates that had made his time at KU special.

photo by: Mike Yoder/Journal-World Photo

University of Kansas graduates enter Memorial Stadium during a graduation ceremony honoring both KU’s Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 on Sunday, May 23, 2021, on the KU campus.

MORE PHOTOS: See more photos from KU’s combined 2020-2021 commencement ceremony.

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