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A group of Colorado Mountain College graduates toss their caps into the air at the Vail Valley Campus’ Friday ceremony.
Ali Longwell /

Before this past year, many would have thought that a graduation ceremony without all the usual pomp and circumstance wouldn’t be a graduation at all. But through the pandemic, it’s the mere celebration of academic accomplishment and success that makes graduation special.

On Friday, Colorado Mountain College’s Vail Valley Campus proved just this as it graduated one of its largest classes ever. The graduates from CMC spanned across generations, even including several high school seniors, and degrees — from business and education to fire science and sustainability studies.

While the commencement was missing some of its more traditional conventions — like keynote speeches, formal graduate addresses and a full procession of graduates — the college maintained an atmosphere of excitement and celebration as graduates received their diplomas.

Graduates and families wait outside CMC’s Vail Valley Campus ahead of their time-appointed ceremony.
Ali Longwell /

Graduates, in groups of about 10 or so, crossed the stage every half hour in front of an audience of their (socially distanced) family and friends. In a typical year, students would have been limited to having only five guests attend, but due to the spacing and distancing of the ceremonies, some graduates were able to have many more family members in attendance.

Each graduate gave a small speech or statement of gratitude, things ranging from:

“I did it, Gramma.”

To: “It’s been 40 years since the last graduation and you’re never too old to learn.”

And: “I’d like to thank myself, because without me, I wouldn’t be here today.”

And also words on inspiration: “No matter how young or how old, if you want it, acquire it.”

Graduates were welcomed onto Colorado Mountain College’s Vail Valley Campus in Edwards on Friday afternoon for a unique commencement.
Ali Longwell /

Against all odds

A common theme throughout the graduation was perseverance — how students, in the face of different adversities, managed to endure and find success.

“On behalf of the campus and faculty, I want to say we are very proud of you all. You are dedicated, hard working and determined to succeed. Graduates, you have faced challenges but you chose to preserve and you did so with the help and support of all of those who have joined you today,” said Marc Brennan, Ph.D., vice president and dean of Colorado Mountain College’s Vail Valley Campus, in the speech he gave many times to each small group of graduates, every half hour.

Not only were all the students presented with the challenge of completing a degree in the midst of a global pandemic, but many persevered as the first person in their family to receive a college degree, others persevered through the stress of maintaining balance between education and raising families, holding jobs and overcoming numerous barriers.

Friends and family members socially distanced as graduates walked across the stage and gave a brief speech or statement of gratitude.
Ali Longwell /

Jessica Ozel, a first generation student and proud Hispanic and Latino, was feeling all of the emotions after the ceremony, but mostly pride and excitement for overcoming struggles, worries and tears to graduate on Friday. Ozel graduated Phi Beta Kappa with an associates of arts.

“I want to cry, I think there is a lot of sadness and a feeling of we finally did it, a sigh of relief, and happiness, because I know with the times, many people don’t have the opportunity or fortune to have a graduation,” she said. “I feel amazing.”

As for what’s next for Ozel? More school. She is hoping to continue her education in computer science or technology of some sort.

Elena Fundureanu, CMC Vail Valley’s top four-year degree student, graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with an emphasis in accounting. Fundureanu is from Moldova where the native language is Romanian. In 2008, she began taking a few language classes at the Vail Valley Campus.

“I received so much support from the Learning Lab,” she said. “I struggled at first with learning English. My tutors saw how hard I was working and supported me all the way. I’ve worked hard, honestly.”

Outside, graduates were applauded by faculty members for their achievement.
Ali Longwell /

Among the spring graduates was Toby Baldwin, who earned Bachelor of Applied Science in Leadership and Management at the Vail Valley Campus in the fall of 2020. This is his most recent step in a lifetime of education and achievement.

Baldwin previously earned a certificate at the Colorado Law Enforcement Training Academy at CMC Spring Valley and an associate degree in criminal justice in 2018. Baldwin has served in the U.S. Army Reserves in Iraq in 2004-05, owned a business, worked for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office and currently works as a detective at the Avon Police Department.

Ultimately, while some parts of the ceremony were left behind due to pandemic protocols, the graduates all turned their tassels from right to left, tossed their caps into the air and walked confidently into the next phase of their lives.

This content was originally published here.