Not much over the past year happened in a traditional way for Keene State College’s Class of 2021, Class President Adriana Daniel said in her commencement address Saturday.
Instead of many in-person classes, there was Zoom. Mandatory weekly testing for COVID-19 replaced campus-wide social events.
“This was not the senior year we all expected to have,” Daniel remarked.
But when “Pomp and Circumstance” wafted through the college’s Fiske Quad on Saturday afternoon, things seemed at least a bit more familiar.
“This commencement, like this entire year that’s just passed, has been filled with adaptations,” President Melinda Treadwell told the 750 graduates. “… All the while, we asked you to be good and diligent students.”
Treadwell told graduates that hardships presented by the pandemic — academic, social and financial — will help them confront the challenges to come. The class helped “set the standards for this community” over the past year, she said, doing so with both grace and compassion.
“You’re venturing forward with the skills you have gained in the most challenging of times,” she said. “… It gives me so much hope.”
Keene State conferred degrees to the class, nearly all of them undergraduates, in a chilly outdoor ceremony featuring intermittent light rain. With each graduate allowed only up to two guests, the commencement proceedings were also livestreamed online.
Graduating senior Benajil Rai drew some of the day’s loudest cheers after winning the Leo F. Redfern Citizenship Award, the highest non-academic honor an undergraduate can receive. Treadwell praised Rai for her work on multimedia projects for Keene State’s library and its student newspaper, The Equinox, and also for sharing her native Nepali culture with the local community.
Mathematics professor Vincent Ferlini was recognized with the Alumni Association’s annual Distinguished Teacher award. Lucille Jordan, president of Nashua Community College and a Jaffrey resident, received an honorary degree for her work in higher education and commitment to public service. And Brian Burford, New Hampshire’s state archivist, earned the annual Granite State Award, which recognizes someone who has demonstrated outstanding achievement in their field and contributed to the state’s welfare.
Reflecting on their time at Keene State, many of the graduates said they feel more confident than when they first stepped on campus.
For Gilroy, Calif., native McKenna Blean, being 3,000 miles from home meant quickly becoming self-reliant.
“I’ve had to establish myself and be sufficient on my own,” she said. “It’s helped me so much just to be my own person.”
A member of the field hockey team, Blean said that group gave her “some of the best friends I’m going to have for the rest of my life.” Losing her senior season to the pandemic “really sucked,” she said, but it didn’t put a damper on the whole year.
One highlight came earlier this month when Blean, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in graphic design, presented her work at the program’s annual Portfolio Show.
“So many friends came out and supported me,” she said. “I was able to show everyone what I was doing for the past four years.”
Genevieve Joly said she worried when she arrived at Keene State that she’d struggle in the classroom, having been homeschooled for most of her academic life. But the work turned out to be quite manageable, she said, crediting the college’s faculty and her friends for their support.
“It was really easy to get help when I needed it,” she said.
Joly, who is from Brookline, will attend Ohio University in the fall to pursue a master’s degree in geography. In addition to earning an undergraduate degree in that field from Keene State, she also studied technical theater, which focuses on set design and other production-related elements — far from her initial plan to study education, she said.
Joly said she’s changed outside the classroom, too, after entering college with a lot of social anxiety. Thanks to leadership roles in several extracurricular activities, including as an Admissions tour guide, she’s now comfortable standing in front of a group and “telling them what to do,” she said, laughing.
“It’s just fun to meet new families and show them the campus,” she said. “I love sharing it with new people.”
Paxton Blanchard, a men’s lacrosse captain this year, said his favorite memories at Keene State include winning the Little East Conference as a freshman and a sophomore.
“To come in and do that in college was new and super-exciting,” the Norwell, Mass., native said. “I just remember jumping up and down with all the guys and holding that trophy.”
Blanchard, who studied business management as well as safety and occupational health applied sciences, is returning to Keene State next year for a graduate degree in the latter program and said he’s excited for his brother, Grayson, an incoming freshman, to join him on campus. Like Joly, Blanchard said his confidence has grown significantly over the past four years, explaining that he was initially “pretty shy.”
“I have no problem walking up to a complete stranger, shaking their hand and having a full-blown conversation,” he said.
Same goes for Katelyn Mello of Exeter, who said putting herself in uncomfortable situations has helped her “come out of [her] shell a lot.” Mello, an early childhood education major, credited her academic adviser — Assistant Professor Jayme Hines — with helping her succeed in and out of the classroom.
“She’s always been there and supported me if I ever needed anything,” she said. “I know she’ll always be someone I can go back to.”
Despite the disappointment of missing many traditional events due to the pandemic, Mello said she and her roommates have enjoyed going to restaurants and retail shops downtown in recent weeks, noting that it’s nice to “have some normalcy” to cap her time at Keene State.
“I’ve had the best four years of my life,” she said.