SPOKANE, Wash. – Graduation season is almost upon us. Both the University of Idaho and Gonzaga have announced they will hold in-person commencement ceremonies. Washington State and Eastern Washington have opted to celebrate virtually.

Our ‘Help Me Hayley’ has received multiple emails from EWU graduate students saying the decision feels like the latest blow in what has been an extremely difficult year. They say they understand the decision was made to keep people safe and healthy, but just hoped for a second look at a way to come together in a socially distant manner.

“I'm getting my Master’s Degree in Social Work,” Lauren Miller said. “I specialized in psychiatric social work.”

It's an achievement Lauren 'Lo' Miller has waited and worked for, for years.

“It seems like eternity,” she said.

That's because the road to here was a painful one.

“I had cancer,” she said. “I wasn't supposed to be able to do this. I had a brain tumor and uterine cancer at the same time. The uterine cancer came back, so in all this, I had a hysterectomy.”

But the single mom continued to fight, to push forward both in and out of the classroom. She said picturing the seconds it would all be worth it got her through some dark days.

“It’s what we dream about, the moment we are hooded,” Miller said.

That's why the announcement that, once again, EWU would be holding graduating virtually was such a crushing blow.

“I cried,” she said. “I was angry.”

Miller says her particular cohort is unique. She says there are single parents like her, and some are the first in their families to graduate high school.

“And now, they are getting their master’s degree,” she said. “And they can't celebrate that. Half of our cohort is advanced standing. We did two years in the equivalent of one year for our master's degree.”

Hard work that Miller says she and her classmates know was well worth it. She says they have tried to plead with the university to tweak this, suggesting they hold several, smaller ceremonies and utilize the football field to ensure social distancing. She says she realizes graduation won’t look like it did in the past, but just hopes for some last minute adjustments in their plans.

On Tuesday, KHQ heard back from a spokesperson with EWU who sent us the following:

“I will refer you to this email our interim president & provost sent to faculty/students/staff almost two months ago. We had to make a decision early and stick to it:

2021 commencements will again be virtual for both semester and quarter programs.

Dear Campus Community:

It is hard to believe we have made it through one full year of this pandemic. Even as the city and county continue to move in a positive direction with COVID cases, we are forced to make the hard decision now on commencement. With that, we have decided to move forward with virtual ceremonies this spring. There are new signs of hope each day as vaccines take hold, but there are still many uncertainties ahead of us, and because of this, public health still must be the benchmark that guides our process.

This is not an easy decision, and one that will surely frustrate students and their friends and families. The university wants to share in the joy of this great moment and we understand and sympathize that this will be a disappointment to most. However, the reality is that 3,300 students are eligible for graduation this spring - plus alumni who graduated last year and many of our students are still awaiting the COVID vaccination. The health and safety of our students, faculty and staff must be a priority and the requirements for space to properly protect and celebrate simply isn’t feasible for where we are right now.

We waited as long as possible to finalize this decision in order to assess and consider our options. We are now directing our efforts towards making the virtual event the best possible celebration and we are looking forward to sharing details in the weeks ahead.

The commencement webpage will continue to be updated with the latest information, and we encourage you to visit the  Eagle Store’s virtual Grad Fair and sale April 12-18. Our hope is for something in-person this fall to celebrate alumni who graduated during the pandemic and we’ll continue to update the campus community as plans are discussed and finalized.

We are proud of the way our students have adapted and persevered through these extraordinary times and look forward to celebrating their hard work and achievements.

Stay well and stay Eagle Strong!

Dr. David May, Interim President, & Dr. Brian Levin-Stankevich, Provost”