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Cheers from chat stream as NCCC holds 2020 commencement online

A split-screen video shows Bernie, North Country Community College's St. Bernard dog mascot, dancing as snapshots of this past school year scroll by. The video was shown at the end of NCCC's online commencement ceremony Saturday. (Screenshot provided by NCCC)

SARANAC LAKE — You couldn’t hear cheers echoing off the walls, but if you could keep up, you could read a cascade of chat posts beside the Zoom screen on your home computer, congratulating each graduate.

It wasn’t a normal commencement North Country Community College held Saturday, but “Why be normal?” faculty said in a video made for the occasion. The traditional ceremony, with bagpipes leading robed professors and graduates into the gym packed with family and friends, just wasn’t possible due to the global coronavirus pandemic. Instead, more than 200 people joined live online.

“Were this taking place on campus, right now we’d be exiting the Connector up on the hill. We’d be winding out way down through a gentle birch forest,” NCCC President Joe Keegan said, wearing his academic gown and sitting in his office. “If you close your eyes and listen deeply, you can probably hear those pipers playing.”

That was about it for nostalgia. This commencement had its own thing going on.

Participants noted in the chat stream that they were logged in from all over the North Country — Mooers Forks to Granville to Northville to Brasher Falls — as well as Ohio, South Carolina, Mississippi, Texas and the United Kingdom.

Joe Keegan, president of North Country Community College, addresses graduates, family and friends as they comment in a chat window Saturday during the school's online commencement ceremony. (Screenshot provided by NCCC)

“You are going to be a resilient generation, not unlike those who lived through the Great Depression and WWII,” NCCC instructor Bruce Rowe posted.

“I’m going to ask you to do something in the next few weeks that you probably don’t expect,” Steve Reed, chair of the NCCC Board of Trustees and a longtime English professor at Northwood School in Lake Placid, said in a brief address to graduates. “I want you to seek out and thank those people who put obstacles in your way, who discouraged you, who suggested perhaps that you couldn’t achieve what you’ve achieved. The virus and those people combined have worked to make you tougher, have helped you to learn to to adapt and have gotten you ready to face decades where the unexpected and uncertainty is the only certainty.”

The keynote speakers were Jon and Pat Erickson, who graduated from NCCC in 1989 along with Keegan. Pat had grown up in Saranac Lake, born in the hospital that is now the college’s administration building, and she was a working single mom when she took her second shot at college and met her future husband here.

“It was a perfect environment to begin my academic journey again,” she said. “Some of the best classes I ever had were at North Country.”

They went on to study at Cornell University and now teach at the University of Vermont: she in veterinary science and he in sustainability science.

Jon and Pat Erickson, who graduated from North Country Community College in 1989 and now teach at the University of Vermont, give the keynote address from their home during NCCC online commencement ceremony Saturday. (Screenshot provided by NCCC)

“I’m not going to sugarcoat this,” Jon said. “The economy stinks,” and the world faced crises of climate change and racism even before the pandemic. But, he added, “With your degree comes a charge to shape a more resilient and just future.”

Pat said she is focusing on positive aspects of the pandemic, such as the environment recovering as humans stay inside: clean water flowing in Venice’s canals and smog lifted from the Himalayas. The couple also reminded graduates to appreciate the North Country’s natural beauty, “tight-knit communities” and “friendly neighbors.”

They ended their video address by saying, “Back to social distancing!” and walking hand-in-hand to their couch to watch TV — revealing that they had been wearing shorts beneath their formal upper-body garb. That drew a wave of laughter and cheers in the chat window.

Keegan followed with a sad announcement, saying he had received word Friday of the death of Bob Brown, one of NCCC’s early faculty members, who taught social sciences.

“While he is no longer with us in physical form, Bob’s goodwill, his humor, his heart, his dedication and his love of North Country Community College live on,” Keegan said.

North Country Community College President Joe Keegan, center, and four faculty members greet graduates in a video shown during NCCC's online commencement ceremony on May 16. (Screenshot provided by NCCC)

Keegan also announced that science professor Judy Steinberg, who made an appearance as the ceremony’s grand marshall, will retire at the end of this year. Steinberg has been deeply involved in campus life for the last 16 years, from chairing her department to beautifying the grounds to having her dogs in her office for pet therapy.

“Her students and her colleagues know that her door is always open, as is her heart,” Keegan said.

Five SUNY Chancellor’s Awards were announced: one for a student, Schuyler Cranker of Saranac Lake; two for staff, Jessica Martin and Lisa Symonds; and two for faculty, Stacey Mascia-Susice and Lee Susice.

A pre-produced video from faculty offered praise and advice, and in place of students being called to the stage to receive their diplomas, a slide was shown for each graduate with name, degree, program, campus (Saranac Lake, Malone or Ticonderoga) awards and special recognitions, and a picture if the student had submitted one. A flurry of shout-outs to each student continued throughout the slide show.

After Keegan thanked the school’s Commencement Committee and the Great Range marketing firm for organizing the production, he turned the ending over to a video featuring Bernie, the college’s St. Bernard dog mascot, dancing to the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (Life Goes On),” accompanied by snapshots of students on campus before the pandemic hit. Amid the chat comments, professor Shir Filler felt bold enough to add, “Best commencement ever!”

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