by Darla Martin Tucker

After 14 weeks of online classes, isolation, and cancelation of their traditional commencement weekend due to Covid-19, La Sierra University’s graduates were eager for a way to safely gather and celebrate.

On Sunday, June 21 they had just such an opportunity with the Drive Through Celebration organized by the university to take place on the day the seniors would have graduated during the traditional Founders’ Green graduation. In the meantime, a formal, in-person awarding-of-degrees ceremony was scheduled for Sept. 13.

For more than two hours beginning at 8:30 a.m., nearly 200 grads with their families and friends paraded  in their vehicles through the main entrance, driving up Yaeger Drive, circling around the gymnasium parking lot and back down to Yaeger. They paused for a portrait photograph in front of the university’s central fountain and congratulations banners before traveling down Yaeger to exit the campus onto Riverwalk Parkway. Faculty, staff and students, all with face masks in place lined the roadside and grassy median, waving congratulatory signs and cheering them on. The parade began at the front entrance kiosk where university President Joy Fehr, assisted by interim Provost Cindy Parkhurst provided each grad with a bag holding a mortarboard and tassel which they could don for their photo further up the road. Other gifts at kiosks scattered along the route included a face mask with a La Sierra logo, a sticker of university mascot Eko, an alumni license plate holder and a 2019-2020 yearbook.

Many grads decorated their cars with bright lettering, balloons, signs and other graduation trimmings and everyone brought along family members or friends to join in the fun.

“I think with everything that’s been going on this is the best way that I can imagine, celebrating with the people who helped me get here, from friends to family to people I’ve met at the school,” said Kyrsti Photias, a psychology major and exercise science minor from La Quinta, Calif. “It’s so cool seeing other people celebrate with the people that matter to them too. It’s cool, it’s so different from sitting in a stadium, or you know, underneath tarps … it’s different, but it’s no less special at all.”

Sunday’s event also fell on Father’s Day and for Photias’ father, Gregg Photias who was driving the family vehicle, this made for a doubly joyous occasion. “With COVID and with everything that’s going on, this has actually been a blessing in disguise as far as being able to celebrate with her boyfriend, the parents, the family,” he said. “This is really, really a special day and a rewarding day, and I’m so glad you guys did this for them.”

Vinh Nguyen, pastor of the El Monte Vietnamese SDA Church and also the father of graduate Timothy Nguyen, drove his family through the parade route with Timothy waving from the front passenger seat. “I am so proud of my son to graduate from here. “I’m excited to see it,” said Pastor Nguyen as their car inched closer to the photography area.“It’s an awesome experience,” added Timothy, a biomedical sciences major aiming for a career in nursing. “I’m glad they did this. I’m glad for the school’s support.”

2020 Drive Through Graduation Celebration

Many graduates described the drive through celebration as an “amazing” experience and a meaningful event as they move on to other chapters in their lives.

John De Valles, a Health and Exercise Science grad noted, “This is very special and makes me feel different. I mean, we get to celebrate all together and see our professors one last time and it’s very special to me.”

“I’m really blessed and glad this school is giving us the chance to have something,” said Zaira Armendariz, a film and television grad from Fontana. She added that the celebration event was like a “light at the end of a tunnel” during dark times.

“I love it. I didn’t expect it would turn out like this,” said Reggie Louis, a business management and health care graduate who arrived with a carload of family and friends.

“It’s been overwhelming but [in a good way],” said religious studies graduate Jeremiah Malingkas. “I didn’t think going through a drive-through could be so much fun.” He stood up through a sunroof in his family’s SUV, festooned with a red lei and joined by a bouquet of graduation balloons. He rode the parade route calling out congratulations to his Class of 2020 through a megaphone.

Kiana Krumm celebrates during the 2020 Drive Through Graduation Celebration

For La Sierra faculty and staff, the morning’s event provided connection and community.

“It’s a lot of fun,” said Assistant Professor of History Alicia Gutierrez-Romine. “It’s an opportunity to let the students show their personalities, to engage with them, to celebrate their accomplishments.”

“We’ve overcome all these obstacles and we’re living in this great moment and it brings out the spirit of celebration after we’ve survived something,” added Ken Crane, associate professor and chair of the History, Politics and Sociology department.

“This is us, this is hashtag LaSierraTogether,” said Vice President of Student Life Yami Bazan.

At the campus entrance, with the energy of reconnection and joyous celebration permeating the atmosphere, Fehr stood near the guard kiosk congratulating each graduate as they drove into the campus and handing each a bag with the mortarboard and tassel.

“Seeing them in person, even though I was wearing a mask and they were in vehicles, reminded me of why we do what we do at La Sierra,” she said, “provide the foundation upon which our graduates can positively change their and our worlds. The excitement on their faces and the pride in their families’ faces made all the challenges of these past three-and-a-half months responding to COVID-19 worth it. I am so proud of each graduate. Each one is truly extraordinary.”

Want to see all the photos from this event? Just click to view the galleries below!

Drive Through Graduation Celebration 2020—Graduates’ Photos

Drive Through Graduation Celebration 2020—Candid Shots