One last time — for now: Rice students organize impromptu ‘graduation’ ceremony

The dual marches through the Sallyport — symbolically entering the campus upon matriculation and departing years later after graduation — are among the most beloved and important traditions at Rice University.

So when the class of 2020 found out March 12 that they’d have to leave campus for the rest of the semester due to the international coronavirus outbreak — and perhaps miss commencement entirely — a plan was hatched. In less than 24 hours, Rice students organized an impromptu “graduation” ceremony for the seniors who were still in Houston.

At 4 p.m. on March 13, all 11 residential colleges led processions from the Academic Quad through the Sallyport, banners held high, as their seniors walked proudly through the Sallyport. 

Baker College seniors walk through the Sallyport during a mock graduation March 13, 2020.

Baker College seniors walk through the Sallyport during a mock graduation March 13. (Photos by Jeff Fitlow)

“It’s kind of sad that a lot of my friends have already left for spring break, not even knowing the semester is going to end,” McMurtry College senior Sahil Patel said. “There are definitely people that I may or may not ever see again and that’s really hard for me to process right now.”

As quickly as the national response to the virus shifts, so do plans: Rice still hopes to hold its graduation this year, and President David Leebron has vowed that a commencement for the Class of 2020 will happen at some point in the future, but all of the students won’t necessarily be able to return.

Realizing this week could be their last on campus for many months, the senior committee from each residential college got to work using group texts and Google Docs. Their goal was to ensure a final, magical moment for their classmates before everyone dispersed; as Rice has moved all of its classes online, students would be going back home to all corners of the world.

Wiess College held a mock commencement inside its commons.

Wiess College held a mock commencement inside its commons.

“When the email actually came out it was like a little shockwave,” Wiess College senior Jordan Sims said of the notice for students to move off campus by March 25. But quickly, she said, their focus shifted to something more productive: “Let’s keep a positive attitude and make it happen.”

To ensure a proper send-off for the senior class, student organizers printed mock commencement programs and enlisted the help of the Rice University Marching Owl Band (MOB), which set up on the grassy Founder’s Court under a brilliant blue sky.

The procession began with Baker College, led by magisters Luis Duno-Gottberg and Angela Duno. Many of the students had already ordered their caps and gowns and wore them as they marched; those who weren’t sporting mortarboards put on their college stoles and Sunday best.

The Rice Marching Owl Band played each college's senior class through the Sallyport.

The Rice Marching Owl Band played each college’s senior class through the Sallyport.

The MOB’s music was occasionally eclipsed by raucous cheers as each college’s class of seniors walked through the Sallyport. Jones College finished the ceremony as the final group to walk into the warm embrace of friends on the other side.

“I wasn’t even going to walk through the Sallyport today, but I just felt the energy and knew that I would regret it if I didn’t,” Martel College senior Gabrielle Falcon said. “I don’t know when there’s going to be another time for me to be around so many wonderful people who have each imprinted on me and made my Rice experience so hard to leave.”

President Leebron was among the faculty and staff who came out to witness the heartwarming event. Even a few parents who were on campus to help their children move out were able to capture the moment.

"This is not a goodbye. It’s a ‘see you later.’”

“This is not a goodbye. It’s a ‘see you later.’”

“Like a lot of seniors, I feel like we all just feel like this is not what was supposed to happen,” McMurtry College senior Marco Gutierrez said. “But I think it’s all up to us to make the best of it with the time we have left.”

After all, this too shall pass — and Rice will be more than ready for its students to return next semester.

“This sounds cliche, but this is not a goodbye,” Gutierrez said. “It’s a ‘see you later.’”

Campus in the time of coronavirus

About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.