Michaela Morrison was recovering from a difficult setback the first time she addressed her Denison classmates from her living room in Arlington, Virginia, in the spring of 2020.
She is dealing with a different kind of ache as she prepares to speak to them again, this time face to face, June 12 as part of a Class of 2020 Commencement ceremony that was delayed two years by the global pandemic.
Nobody needs to explain to Morrison — honored as the class student speaker — what her fellow seniors lost when the University halted on-campus classes March 13, 2020, two months shy of graduation. Morrison was a member of the powerhouse Denison women’s swimming and diving team, one that was expected to win a Division III national title. The NCAA canceled the meet just days before the squad was to depart for Greensboro, North Carolina.
Morrison made no mention of her team or its heartbreak while delivering her recorded remarks for the virtual conferral of degrees on May 16, 2020. Clad in a cap and gown and standing in front of a bright red Denison flag, she focused on the collective struggle and collective strength of her fellow seniors.
“There is no class and no capstone course that could have prepared us for this experience,” Morrison told them. “We have learned on a greater level about loss, fear, uncertainty, chaos. The list could go on. But we’ve also learned to a far greater degree about empathy, decisive action and solidarity.”
The only others in the room with her during the six-minute address were her father, Michael, and her mother, MacKenize — a woman who imbued Michaela with a love for swimming and foreign languages.
Two years later, Morrison has written another speech, one focusing on the resilience of her classmates and the gravitational pull of the liberal arts school on The Hill. She’s amazed that more than 300 members of a graduating class of 574 students have registered online to return for the three-day event, which begins June 12, 2022.
“A majority of the (speech) is about why we would choose to come back after two years,” said Morrison, a double major in global commerce and Spanish, who’s working in Costa Rica. “Whenever I tell people I’m going back for my graduation, they’re like, ‘When did you graduate? Wasn’t it like two years ago?’ So the speech is all about Denison — the community, the learning, the professors, the people there. It’s what has made more than 300 of us want to come back on some random weekend in June.”
It’s part Commencement, part reunion. Morrison cannot wait to reconnect with classmates. She understands how the weekend will help bring closure to an emotional chapter in the lives of so many students, including her own.
As she delivers her address on the academic quad, Morrison will be buoyed by the sight of so many joyous and familiar faces. She’ll also be thinking of the one she wishes she could see again.
‘The people are the reason’
Jordan Beck sat at a rooftop bar overlooking St. Petersburg, Florida ,on March 13, 2020, when he received word that Denison was suspending in-person classes.
News of the rapidly spreading virus had caused many college students to reconsider spring break plans, but Beck and six of his closest friends at Denison — all members of the Class of 2020 — decided to make the trip.
High atop the Hotel Zamora, the traveling party was awash in emotion —a mix of sadness, anger, and confusion. Just a day after their arrival at Beck’s family condo, his friends began departing, scattering across the country to gird themselves for COVID-19 lockdowns.
While the visit was brief, its significance and poignance have grown in the collective memory.
“Looking back on it, I feel really lucky to have been with my friends at that moment,” said Beck, a scientist working in Washington, D.C. “How many seniors got to spend one last night together?”
The opportunity to reunite with old classmates is among the driving forces behind the upcoming weekend’s event. All six of Beck’s friends who bid tearful goodbyes in St. Petersburg — Katie Aucamp, Kathryn Belfance, Grace Horn, Katherine Kunze, Caroline Lewis, and Brooke Shuler — are committed to returning.
“The people are the reason why I’m coming back,” said Horn, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Georgia. “I’m excited to see my friends again and, of course, my mom wants to be there to share in the moment. She loves the regalia.”
Natalie Zaravella believes the weekend will be cathartic for many.
Beyond the threat of the virus, she thinks the outpouring of emotion two years ago was triggered by the abrupt ending to life on campus. One day they were together experiencing the leisurely countdown to graduation, and the next they were spread out around the world, linked only by computer screens and virtual classrooms.
“Personally, I feel like I’ve healed a lot,” said Zaravella, a JP Morgan Chase project manager in Columbus, Ohio. “I don’t hold those angry or sad feelings anymore, especially seeing the way life goes on. Seeing things return to normal has been really healing. This (Commencement) is going to represent some finality for us.”
Sara Lichtenberg, a sustainability consultant in Ketchum, Idaho, said the premature halt to her senior year has, in some ways, strengthened relationships among classmates. Lichtenberg has made concentrated efforts to visit Denison friends, and in turn they have made trips to Big Sky country for skiing holidays with her.
“I think it pushed us to stay in touch,” she said. “Going through something like that brought us closer together. We make time to see each other.”
‘You want to leave your mark’
The “2020” tattoo above Zoe Whelan’s left elbow attracts attention and questions. It’s a natural conversation starter, and that’s by design.
“People will say, ‘Well, that’s an interesting choice,’” said Whelan, a communications director for an outreach church in Memphis, Tennessee. “Then, I get to tell them my story, which makes me feel good.”
Whelan was a member of the women’s swimming and diving team that qualified 19 athletes to the NCAA Championships, the most of any Division III program. It was a senior-laden group, a favorite to end Emory University’s 10-year stranglehold on the title.
Six days before the meet, Big Red coaches summoned the men’s and women’s teams to the Mitchell Center for an unscheduled 4:30 p.m. gathering. Throughout the week, swimmers nervously tracked news about the virus, seeing how it was starting to disrupt sporting events and daily life.
“I was heading over to the meeting and I had been in the basement of a building that had poor cell reception,” Whelan recalled. “As I was leaving class, I started getting messages on my phone like, ‘I’m so sorry, Zoey, you worked so hard. Stay strong.’”
Minutes later, her coaches confirmed Whelan’s worst suspicions.
Every Denison student, faculty member, and campus worker was impacted by the wave of shutdowns, but few were so close to achieving such a lofty goal. The women’s program had been vying for a national title since 2001.
After coaches informed the athletes of the NCAA’s decision, the 12 senior women who had qualified huddled in the locker room. Not a word was spoken. They just sat and cried.
“Devastating is really the only way I can describe it,” Zaravella said. “That’s probably the most difficult challenge I’d faced in my life up to this point. I had been a competitive swimmer for 16 years and it was going to be my last hurrah. You come to Denison and you want to, in the words of (President Adam) Weinberg, be a ‘discerning moral agent.’ You want to leave your mark and you want it to be a good mark.”
Two days later, coaches allowed the swimmers and divers one last time in the pool before the natatorium’s doors were shuttered.
There would be no national championship rings or banner. Whelan thought team members deserved some tangible symbol from a remarkable season cut agonizingly short. It’s how many of them came to get tattoos, choosing either “2020” or “XX.”
“I knew it was a year I would never forget,” Whelan said. “At the time, I don’t think anyone understood the severe impact the year would have on everyone.”
Morrison, the 2020 class speaker, supported the idea, but she opted against getting a tattoo out of respect for one family member.
“If I would have come back home with a tattoo, my mother would not have liked that,” Morrison said. “If I had gotten a ‘2020’ or an ‘XX’ on my body, I think it’s really something that I would have loved to explain to people. I would tell them that my team and I went on a rollercoaster that year and there was so much growth in every single one of us.”
‘Great personal connection’
Langyi Ye never hesitated when Weinberg, making good on his promise from the spring of 2020, announced the dates for the delayed Commencement.
Yes, it was a long way to travel for someone who already had her diploma and a budding career in the business development of artificial intelligence. Flights from Oxford, England, to Columbus aren’t cheap. But Ye couldn’t commit quickly enough.
She liked the idea of lodging on The Hill one more time and was enticed by the three days of events to honor the graduates. Ye, like many of her classmates, also wanted the chance to meet face to face with professors to say thank you.
“I still stay in touch with three of them,” Ye said. “There is such a great personal connection with the professors at Denison.”
Ye’s sentiment was echoed by almost every Class of 2020 member interviewed.
“I can’t wait to see my research advisor, Dr. Cristina Caldari,” said Beck, who majored in biology. “I credit her mentorship with my professional success. There’s no way I get the jobs I’ve been able to get without the work that I did with her.”
Zaravella said associate professor Dosinda Alvite was assigned to her as an academic advisor during her freshman year. The student never took a class in Spanish, modern languages or Latin American studies— the areas of Alvite’s expertise — but the professor was so helpful and supportive that Zaravella never considered changing advisors.
And it’s not just faculty members former students want to greet and thank. Several mentioned cafeteria workers and support staff at Slayter Market and Curtis Hall.
Others can’t wait to roll down the hill and eat their favorite meals from Granville restaurants. By the sounds of it, The Pub on Broadway had better stock up on spinach and artichoke dip.
“I miss the blueberry pancakes at Aladdin, the chicken wings from Three Tigers,” Ye said. “I even miss cornbread in the campus dining halls.”
‘What we have built over our four years’
The events of the past two years have taught Michaela Morrison that tomorrows don’t come with warranties. She was reminded of that April 11, 2021, when her mother died doing something she loved.
MacKenzie Kearney suffered a fatal heart attack while swimming. The 61-year-old video production specialist had been looking forward to a masters swimming camp that she and Michaela had planned to attend.
Mother and daughter were tethered by the love of water, and few things made Kearney prouder than to see her only child excel at Denison, where Morrison developed into a four-time All-American.
“She really passed on a lot of wisdom to me,” said Morrison, who helps run a girls leadership academy in Costa Rica. “In a weird way, I feel like she prepared me to handle a situation like this. It sucks not having her around, but I feel like she gave me the life skills and tools I need.”
In her virtual address to the Class of 2020, Morrison had cited the virtues of “empathy, decisive action, and solidarity.” A year later, those were embodied by the presence of eight Denison classmates from the swim team who traveled to Virginia for the memorial service.
“Looking out and seeing them there really spoke to what we had built over our four years,” Morrison said. “Even in the toughest times, we have tried to be there for each other.”
Morrison returned to campus this past season to serve as an assistant women’s swim coach. Her former teammates traveled to Indianapolis, Indiana, in March to see the Big Red finish third at the NCAA Championships.
Ten of the 12 seniors who were scheduled to compete in the 2020 national tournament are signed up to attend Commencement.
“Honestly, these were the most transformative years of my life,” Morrison said of her time at Denison. “I’ve learned so much and I was challenged so much and I was encouraged every year to take a step outside of my comfort zone. It’s really just the people there who have made the experience what it is, and I think that’s why you see so many from our class coming back.”
Morrison admits that her second address to classmates has been more difficult to write. She’s been trying to weave the individual challenges wrought by the pandemic into a collective experience. Morrison hopes the reunion and recognition of class achievement can serve as a cleanser.
The daughter of MacKenzie Kearney knows one thing for certain:
She’s getting a tattoo.
“I’m thinking XX,” Morrison said. “The symbol is also a Viking rune that means, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way.’ That is the definition of our 2020 class.”