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NCCC grads celebrate in virtual commencement

Actor Mat Fraser delivers his commencement speech to North Country Community College graduates on Saturday. (Photo provided)

SARANAC LAKE — Every time a graduate’s name was read aloud, the chat board on North Country Community College’s Zoom commencement lit up as messages of pride and congratulations poured in from their professors.

After a year of mostly online classes, North Country’s 242 seniors tuned in Saturday from around the area and the world for the college’s 54th commencement, and its second virtual ceremony.

NCCC President Joe Keegan took a moment to honor the sacrifices of everyone who worked on the front lines of the pandemic.

“In our region, many of those people are North Country Community College graduates,” Keegan said.

“What an honor that we have so many graduates this year from the nursing program!” one message during the ceremony read. “The world needs you.”

Bernie, North Country Community College’s St. Bernard mascot dances at Cobble Lookout with college President Joe Keegan to The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” in a video shown and the end of NCCC’s virtual commencement ceremony on Saturday. (Photo provided)

Virtual, again

Keegan clapped for the graduates from his office on campus, acknowledging their desire to celebrate in person and hear the applause from all their friends, family and classmates. He said the college chose a virtual commencement because it was in line with how it conducted the school year: safe, but separate.

“Going into it, I know students were disappointed that we couldn’t do an in-person component but they were completely understanding,” NCCC Communications Director Chris Knight said.

He said most graduates live in the area, but at least one hails from New Zealand.

Knight said NCCC tried to give students as much or even more joy and honor in the virtual commencement as they would get at an in-person ceremony. He said the college introduced new traditions and brought back other ones.

NCCC contracted with the Great Range video production company for filmed segments of the ceremony. Knight said he heard positive feedback on this from students.

Student and faculty speakers were brought back and Knight hopes this segment will stick around in the future.

Soccer, hobbits and COVID-19

The student speaker was Alycia Cowan, who returned to NCCC this year to get a second associate degree in English. Cowan said she remembers her first and last days on campus.

On her first she met her teammates on the college’s soccer team, some of whom became her best friends and her housemates. On her last, she remembers the heartwrenching feeling of saying an early goodbye as the COVID-19 pandemic scattered students away from campus last year.

Cowan said when she realized she’d be living at home that year she ran for student government president to become more connected to the college.

The faculty speaker was Shir Filler, an English professor who quoted the opening lines of J. R. R. Tolkien’s novel “The Hobbit.” She compared students to the character Bilbo Baggins, who just wanted to eat, drink and smoke on his porch, his comfort zone. She said though students didn’t have a wizard like Gandalf knock on their door and recruit them for an adventure, their inner self guided them there.

She drew comparisons between the pandemic and the 13 dwarfs who descended on Bilbo’s home, eating all his food and making a mess. Both were uninvited and unwelcome challenges, yet the students, like the hobbit, continued on their adventure.

Filler said students were leaving with the “one ring,” a sharpened mind, which she hoped they would use to fight the “forces of darkness.”

The commencement speaker, actor Mat Fraser, gave an enthusiastic monologue on the nature of college during COVID-19. He said students had to overcome a lot: learning to work in loud houses, staying focused amid the world’s events and dealing with teachers whose tech skills were already lacking.

“How did you do it?” he asked.

Fraser himself has had barriers to overcome, too. He was born with undeveloped arms, but spent years making a name for himself in television — American Horror Story: Freak Show, His Dark Materials, Loudermilk — and advocating for disabled people’s rights.

NCCC Board of Trustees Chair Steve Reed quoted the Enlightenment philosopher Baruch Spinoza and asked students to take their new experiences and use them to benefit humanity.

“As we return to more normal times it seems to me that it would be good for us to search out what is truly good and communicable to man,” Reed said. “I would like to tell you guys that there aren’t going to be any more crises, global or personal, but that wouldn’t be true. But in this year, at this college, I think you’ve developed everything you need to meet the times, however good or however bad.”

Professors read out the list of their graduates’ names and told them how much they love and support them.

Dancing dog

Commencement ended with a music video of Bernie, NCCC’s St. Bernard dog mascot, dancing with Keegan on the top of Cobble Lookout in Wilmington to The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun” while images of graduates flashed on screen.

Knight was in the Bernie suit and said they had a fun time climbing the short trail and dancing in the early morning sunrays. Bernie was then seen dancing around campus with as many faculty and staff as he could find.

Keegan said students could see their last year at NCCC during the pandemic as “good luck or bad luck.” He hoped they’d see it as good luck and that they came out stronger on the other side of their struggle.

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