The great Senior Send Off!

May 5, 2023

This is it, Senior Send Off, when our almost-graduates are given an exclusive run of The Hill before they walk on Saturday. 

Free of final exams and first-year students — and sophomores and juniors, for that matter — the Class of 2023 has Denison all to themselves for much of the week leading up to their Saturday Commencement.

Beginning Tuesday evening, they partake of established campus traditions — ring the bells at Swasey, anyone? — and reminisce about all they’ve been through together. There’s roller skating and slip ’n slides, food trucks and formal receptions, celebrations and conversations. A shared final sunrise. Four days to relive the last four years.

We’re not crying; you’re crying.

“Senior Send Off is about the class having dedicated time with one another, as they really put a bow on their experience, have those last important memories, and go through that nostalgic and bittersweet moment — this is the last time that we’re all going to be together, as students, on this Hill, in this capacity,” says Patrick Fina, associate director of the Alford Community Leadership & Involvement Center (CLIC).

And for this class, who had a first year unlike any other due to Covid, it’s been quite a ride.

“It’s always been a celebration not just of, ‘We graduated, we did it, we’re going to walk on Saturday,’” Fina says. “It’s a celebration of the community. It has been especially special the last couple of years, just because there were days where we didn’t know if we were ever going to return to normal. At certain points, it felt like maybe we weren’t going to get there.”

From Tuesday evening through Senior Sunrise, we chronicled the special week leading up to Commencement.

Tuesday, May 9: Senior Send Off begins

On a sun-splashed Tuesday afternoon, Olivia Walters and Alexis Coleman lie on a blanket in their own little corner of the intramural field. They are adjusting to a different, albeit temporary state of being at Denison. No more deadlines to hit. No more tests to take. No more classes to attend.

As they look out at fellow seniors playing cornhole and kicking a soccer ball while country music blares from a stereo, it’s like the Class of 2023 is collectively exhaling after four long years.

“It’s nice to have this free time to be with friends and to reconnect with some old classmates you haven’t hung around with for a few years,” Coleman says.

She and other seniors speak about how unusual it feels to be so free for so many days in a row while still on campus. Sure, there will be cleaning and packing that need done, plenty of events to attend, parents to host and commencement robes to don. But that comes later. The past few days have been a time to decompress after the demands of a rigorous school year.

And while sipping cold beverages with friends is always a popular plan, that still leaves about 18 to 20 hours with little obligations and no homework.

“It’s weird,” Courtney Fouke says. “After I finished with my tests, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself. You get together with friends, but you’re used to being so busy. I’m adjusting, but it takes some time.”

Good coaches wear many hats given the numerous obligations to their players away from the field. On Friday, Denison softball coach Tiffany Ozbun will don a new one — a chauffeur’s hat.

She has promised to drive her three senior players from Greencastle, Indiana, site of the NCAC softball tournament, back to Granville, Ohio, so they can participate in Commencement on Saturday. The team opens the tournament Friday at 10 a.m. against Ohio Wesleyan.

The Big Red will play twice that day, requiring only one win to advance to Sunday’s action. In other words, Ozbun will likely spend a good chunk of her weekend on U.S. Route 70 in a rental car. It’s a 257-mile one-way drive from Granville.

Seniors Maggie Ballentine, Sophia Parpala, and Abby Arabia appreciate their coach’s sacrifice.

“Talking with them, it was something they wanted to do, and we have Saturday off,” says Ozbun, who’s in her 16th season at Denison. “It’s important to them and it’s important to their families.”

And while an extra eight-hour round trip to Indiana isn’t ideal, Ozbun is ready to make that drive.

“These seniors have put a lot of time and energy into their collegiate careers,” Ozbun says. “It’s a huge life event. As coaches, we get invited to other life events like weddings, so it just seems natural to be there for Commencement.”

The official Senior Send Off program begins Tuesday night with a formal reception in which the Class of ’23 will be toasted by the four class deans. There will be a slider station, a bar, and maybe a few tears. Pangs of nostalgia should be expected as the week goes on, and senior class dean Michael C. Brady hopes those feelings are embraced.

“We want to make sure that there are opportunities for seniors to decompress, reconnect, reflect, and even get a little sentimental about their four years here,” he says. “We want to set them up to say goodbye, and leave with the momentum that makes them engaged alumni who want to contribute to the life of the college long after they’ve graduated.”

Wednesday, May 10: A change of plans, and “a crazy last three days”

A choice has been made regarding Commencement: Mitchell over mud.

With the National Weather Service forecast for the end of the week growing soggier by the day — a 70% chance of rain and thunderstorms all day Friday and Saturday — the administration decided to move Commencement from A Quad to the Mitchell Center Fieldhouse. That much rain, and potential storms, raised issues from safety to accessibility.

The day and time of Commencement — 10:30 a.m. Saturday, May 13 — have not changed.

The Faculty Coffee, in which seniors, their families, and faculty members gather for coffee and conversation on Saturday morning, also has been moved to the Mitchell Center Recreation Gym. The time, 9 to 10 a.m., remains the same.

An outdoor Commencement under sunny skies would have been nice, of course. But if any group knows how to persevere amidst unpredictability, how to push through adversities foisted upon them by powers outside their control, it’s the Class of ’23.

Senior Gabe Springer walks down the hill toward the athletic complex preparing to make his final practice throws in discus before Thursday’s track-and-field meet in suburban Cleveland. As he passes the football stadium, Springer spots the women’s lacrosse team going through the paces of its final tune-up before Friday’s NCAA tournament game in Chicago.

While many seniors were yawning and reaching for that second cup of coffee — enjoying their leisurely run-up to commencement — Springer and many other spring sports athletes remain in training, prepping for their biggest competitions of the season.

“It’s not been easy with a lot of my friends staying up late,” says Springer, who last weekend finished second in the conference championships and hopes to qualify for the NCAA meet. “I want to have fun, too, but I need to get my rest every night.”

Discipline is always important in athletics, but it takes on added meaning during Senior Send Off, with so many fellow students no longer operating on a schedule or having to set an alarm.

“We’ve talked about it as a team,” says women’s lacrosse coach Amanda Daniels, whose squad won the NCAC tournament title last weekend. “They have to miss a lot because of their commitment. But all the work and effort they put into the season is about getting to where we are now.”

Madeleine “Maddy” Murphy sits in the shade of the tent on Reese-Shackelford Common, taking a short break from the Senior Send Off she helped organize.

Murphy and classmate Mac Hammett are co-governors of this senior class, a title given to the two highest vote-getters in the student body elections. For months, they have worked with Denison to plan out the week leading up to Saturday’s Commencement.

“Who knew that Commencement takes literally every part of campus to happen?” Murphy says. “I’m getting to know all the bits and pieces. It’s also cool because I’ve never seen senior week. This is the only senior week I’ve ever seen and will ever have.”

That has been by design; one of the key tenets of this Denison tradition is that it is for seniors only. With a few permitted exceptions, first-year students, sophomores, and juniors must leave campus before the festivities begin.

Covid dominated so much of the Class of 2023’s experience, Murphy says, so this final year has been special.

“Our only normal year has been our senior year, so it’s been fun to see the community stay together and congeal this year,” she says.

Certain senior events like the bucket list are sacred, but co-governors are encouraged to put their own class stamp on each year’s schedule. Hammett wanted to ensure that there were set periods where nothing was scheduled, to allow seniors time to kick back and hang with friends, gather with members of their clubs or organizations, or visit that favorite professor.

“We’ve reserved that and held that sacred for you,” Murphy says.

And Murphy thought Friday’s “fun run” for seniors and families would, given Denison’s hilly terrain, be a healthful break from the week’s food and drink.

If it all feels a little hectic, Murphy is OK with that. On Friday she was offered a job in the executive branch of Maryland state government, on Saturday she finished her last schoolwork as an undergrad, and now she is days from leaving The Hill.

“I think it’s kind of supposed to be a blur,” she says. “We’ve had four years of incredible, intentional community. This is a crazy last three days: See all the people you can, say ‘yes’ to as many things as you can, do as much as you want. And I think the best things are unplanned. It’s the running into someone you haven’t seen since freshman year and deciding to go to an event with them afterwards, things like that.”

Yaz Simpson sits under a big tent on Reese-Shackelford Commons and chats with friends during the traditional Senior Brunch. Other classmates stop by, exchanging smiles and well-wishes for the future.

Simpson makes friends the way Warren Buffett makes money; everyone’s richer for the experience.

So it’s only natural that one of the Class of 2023’s most personable and charismatic members will serve as the student Commencement speaker on Saturday. A driving force behind the university’s HERE US theatre production, Simpson was selected among five finalists.

“It’s not your standard speech,” says the psychology and cinema major. “It’s a poem, one that I hope is inspirational to our class. I wanted it to be about manifesting your dreams and about all the hard things this class has been through, including Covid. It will end on a positive note.”

Simpson shares a story of the poem’s second draft, the one she had to read in front of the judges.

“My plan was to make some tweaks to the first draft,” she recalls. “But I woke up one night at 2 a.m. thinking, ‘What have I done? I hate this.’ I spent the next five hours completely rewriting it.”

Simpson is working on a screenplay, and eventually plans to move to Los Angeles.

She’s a recipient of an 1831 Senior Leadership Award, given to students who have shown passion and demonstrated immense effort toward improving student life throughout their tenure at Denison. Earning the opportunity to recite her poem in front of classmates also ranks among her highest honors.

“It feels amazing,” she says. “And I’m so lucky to have such a strong support group.”

Colson Stutz arrives back at the clubhouse and hops off the golf cart wearing a face as long as a par-5. “I missed some big putts,” Stutz says, exaggerating for effect like he’s being interviewed by sports writers after a major tournament. “Two five footers, but they were downhill.”

There were no losers among his foursome, which played at Denison Golf Course Wednesday afternoon. Stutz along with good friends and fellow seniors Charlie Gray, Nate Swift, and Andrew Fluri have been looking for months to squeeze in their “grudge match,” pitting fraternity brothers from Kappa Sigma and Delta Chi.

“This is at least the third time we tried to arrange this,” Fluri says.

Among the perks of senior week is getting to participate in functions and activities that sometimes get postponed due a chaotic school year. Bill Nelson, an assistant course manager, says there’s been a steady flow of Denison students this week because of the free time ahead of Commencement.

Stutz and his mates paired up and played a nine-hole match that required two additional holes to settle. “We want a rematch,” Stutz says. Now that school has wrapped, they have time for it.

Thursday, May 11: A cemetery tour and a final night in Granville

Gabby Elliott hasn’t hurtled down a slip-n-slide track since she was a kid. Oliver Gignoux says it’s been at least 15 years since he allowed “gravity to do the work” on a water slide.

Two days before Commencement and the start of a new life chapter, Elliott and Gignoux are among the dozens of seniors reliving backyard summer fun — albeit in a parking lot. The inflatable slip-n-slide and water slide are wet and wild crowd pleasers for a second consecutive Senior Send Off.

“This is the kind of stuff we don’t get to do anymore,” Elliott says after whooshing down the 16-foot-high water slide with Carolyn Trent. “These senior experiences are really fun when they are hands-on like this. Especially when it’s a beautiful day.”

Among activities from last year’s Senior Send Off, the water slides were the most requested by the Class of 2023, says Patrick Fina, associate director of the Alford Community Leadership & Involvement Center (CLIC).

The Moon Hall lot fills with laughter as seniors either slide down the paths or record their friends doing the same. Instagram accounts populate with images of head-first slides and, as Trent calls them, “Little Mermaid moments.” Alexandria Lazo gathers so much speed down the 23-foot-long slip-n-slide she flies off the back end and lands on the ground. She can’t stop laughing as friends help her up.

While music blares from a speaker, the echoes of childhood remain audible.

Walking among the dead, Fred Porcheddu-Engel knows how to lighten a mood. Minutes into their tour of the College Cemetery, Lucy Anderson and Caro Elliott chuckle as the animated English professor tells why the university decided to put fencing around the campus graveyard 15 years ago.

“Too many students ended up stumbling through here after a long night of worshipping the amber essence of the blessed hops,” says Porcheddu-Engel,decked out in a light-blue shirt covered in kiwis and a pair of Oreo socks.

The cemetery tour is on the Bucket List of activities that also include getting to sit at President Adam Weinberg’s desk, exploring the planetarium, and visiting the WDUB studio.

Porcheddu-Engel’s graveyard chat has been part of the Bucket List experience for years, and his wit and wisdom seldom disappoint. It’s here where Denison presidents and some former professors are interred.

On Thursday, he tells of a “zombie” professor who donated his brain to science, and how Denison’s fourth president, Samson Talbot, helped keep the university solvent after the Civil War, a time when some small colleges folded.

“It’s fun, which might be odd to say about a cemetery tour,” Elliott says. “But the way he does it helps celebrate the lives of the people buried here.”

Before ending the tour, Porcheddu-Engel tells the students he’s already got a plot selected for himself.

“Please come back and visit me,” he says. “I’ll be right over there.”

They arrived on campus four years ago and immediately were bonded by a shared name and a love for the game. Pitcher Charlie Fleming and catcher Charlie Glennon. The two Charlies of Denison baseball. “We have been best friends from the first day of school,” says Fleming.

Unlike most seniors, they have had little time to reminisce this week as the Big Red, the nation’s 11th-ranked team, competes to host an NCAA regional tournament. They notched a 9-5 win over Wabash College on Thursday in an NCAC tournament opener.

The friends made history together last weekend as Fleming became just the third pitcher in program history — and the first in 18 years — to throw a no-hitter. Glennon caught that game, and he’s hoping to be behind the plate for a few more of Fleming’s starts on a deep tournament run.

“At the end of the day, we’re trying to leave the jersey in a better place than where we found it,” Glennon says. “When we’re done, we don’t want to have any regrets.”

It’s not that seniors Will Duquette and Turner Schwiebert are excited to be packing up on a beautiful Thursday afternoon, one of their last at Denison. But there is a method to this mundanity. This way, they are keeping their evenings free.

Walking back to Good Hall after their latest trip to the Silverstein parking lot, Duquette says he is in pretty good shape, packing-wise. Schwiebert, not so much.

“I just started,” he says.

But with some seniors certain to be frantically packing well after Commencement to meet the 6 p.m. Saturday moving-out deadline, the pair are likely ahead of the curve.

They have known each other since their first year and roomed together for the past two. They say they have no big plans as their time winds down. They figure they’ll check out the Sizzle later tonight. Otherwise, they are playing things by ear.

For now, they decide to take a break from packing to complete another humdrum task: a final check of their mailboxes.

“I have not checked my mailbox in, like, two months,” Schwiebert says. They strike out for Slayter, a walk they’ve made a thousand times, and will make just a few more.

Down The Hill in Granville on Thursday night, seniors pay last visits to Whit’s Frozen Custard, Three Tigers Brewing Co., The Pub on Broadway.

Olivia LaHote, Kacey Pagano, and Hannah Young have no specific agenda.

“Just spending time together,” LaHote says during a pause on North Prospect Street.

Earlier in the day they hit the water slides and made the rounds for the on-campus Denison Bucket List. It is strange, they say, to have so much free time at college. They’ve hit on a rhythm that will allow them to savor the last few days and ready themselves to leave.

“A couple hours of fun, and then packing, then fun, then more packing,” Young says.

But are they ready to leave?

“I feel like I haven’t processed it, honestly,” Young says.

Pagano feels prepared academically but admits to feeling wistful for social time lost due to Covid. Her friends agree. But there was an upside.

“People really packed as much as they could into the last two years,” Young says. “We have made the most of it.”

Rachel Cryberg, Erin Kistler, Kathryn Hubbard, Sarah Kovacic, and Tamara Dzolic feel the clock ticking. After graduation, they’re going their separate ways; Kovacic is going particularly far, to Vienna for a Fulbright fellowship.

“It’s been a lot of just being with each other,” Cryberg says about this last week. “How much silly stuff can we do before we’re gone?”

Friday, May 12: Well, technically this one starts late Thursday

There are no roller-skating showoffs here, but that’s OK. This is 2023, not 1973.

At the Senior Sizzle late Thursday night, the skating moves are tentative. The floor of Slayter is mercifully padded with interconnecting foam blocks. The falls happen in slow-motion and end in laughter, not injury. One senior tumbles to the mat, drink in hand, and rises delighted; she has not spilled a drop. Another — clearly out of control but also traveling an estimated .73 mph, if both those conditions can exist simultaneously — bonks into a temporary wall that is strategically placed to prevent direct collisions with furniture. It works, sort of, cradling him as both go over.

One floor up, good-natured bickering about scoring discrepancies flares on the LED minigolf course. And on the third floor, The Roost is packed. Nelly’s ​“Hot in Herre”​ thumps, offering an accurate assessment of the current room temperature.

Outside, it is cooler. A boisterous group, inadvertently locked out of Slayter, calls upon others nearby to parse the problem. They put their heads together. Access granted.

“Remember, this never happened when you meet my parents tomorrow!” one of the rescued seniors says.

Distant hoots and shouts carry across the campus. It is just before midnight. A trio descends Presidents’ Drive. Farther ahead a couple, arms around each other, head in the same direction, walking into Granville and their last full day as undergraduates.

Timothy Evans stands on the front steps of Silverstein Hall, his stepson at his side, his emotions crashing like waves against coastal rocks. Christopher Pascall is a day away from becoming the first member of Evans’ family to graduate from college.

As he speaks, the pride Evans feels is like another presence on the steps. It’s right there on the surface, so close you can almost touch it.

“Graduating college is a major accomplishment,” he says. “I have been looking forward to this for about two weeks now. It feels like I’ve been on cloud nine, telling all my friends, ‘My son is graduating.’”

You see them all over campus today. Mothers and fathers of Denison graduates, their chests puffed out like cartoon college mascots.

“You want your kids to turn out better than you, and these two here have turned out better than us,” says Tom Levin of his sons Will, who graduates from Denison on Saturday, and Jack, who earned his diploma from Macalester College several years ago.

Most of Senior Send Off week celebrates the graduates. But Friday is a time for moms and dads, arriving from hometowns to share the stage.

All that pent-up nervous energy from four years ago, when the journey of their sons and daughter was beginning, is gone. What remains is a tremendous sense of accomplishment.

Jim and Cathy Coleman are in town from Lexington, Virginia. When daughter Alexis walks across the stage Saturday afternoon, she will become their third daughter to earn a college degree.

Jim Coleman plans to celebrate with a few beers Friday night. Tom Levin and his sons are playing basketball at Livingston Gym. Timothy Evans is taking his son and family members out for dinner.

“It’s feelings of pride and joy,” Coleman says. “Having three daughters graduate has me reminiscing about the past 16 years and how fast it’s all gone by.”

On a day when seniors are filling every square inch of their parents’ vehicles with clothing, appliances, and mementos, chaplain Stephanie McLemore talks to an audience in Swasey Chapel about excess baggage.

“I suggest you leave behind your regrets and your grudges and forgive what needs to be forgiven,” the director of the Spiritual Life Center says.

McLemore is one of several featured speakers in the campus Baccalaureate service, a non-denominational observance that nearly fills the chapel’s pews.

The Baccalaureate Choir opens the liturgy with a stirring West African folk song as dancers in emerald green skirts perform in the aisles and on stage. Select seniors read sacred texts from various religions during the one-hour service. As it concludes, McLemore, Rev. Timothy Carpenter, Lama Adam Berner, and Angelo Dunlap offer the Denisonian Blessings. Dunlap recites the Blessing For Perspective:

May you give pause to see life from another’s point of view.
May you be intrigued by a perspective that questions your certainty.
May you come to know an uncomfortable feeling as an opportunity for growth.
May you remember in real time that the sky remains blue after the storm has passed.
May you never fear offering an apology.
May you be of strong enough character to ask hard questions.
May you travel in a direction of wanting compassion and justice for all souls.

Raj Bellani floats from conversation to conversation at Friday night’s Senior Soiree inside Moon Hall. His smile disarms. His engaging nature belies the important roles he serves as vice president and chief of staff at Denison.

Bellani’s demeanor will change Saturday morning, however. He will look at campus with a more critical eye — one trained on seniors about to walk across the stage at commencement. If a gown is wrinkled, a tie hangs askew, or a mortarboard is cockeyed, Bellani is there to extinguish potential fashion emergencies.

You won’t find this selfless task in his biography, but he takes the role seriously.

“Sometimes the students, especially the young men, might not be put together in time for them to get on stage and for the presidential photo,” Bellani says. “I’m supporting them for that time when their parents need a photo from Commencement. Moms get upset when their sons don’t look good.”

Bellani approaches the slightly rumpled seniors as their rows are called to the stage. Sometimes, it’s making sure the zipper on their gowns reaches the top floor. Other times, it’s straightening collars on dress shirts beneath the gowns. And for those seniors needing more hydration after a long night of revelry, Bellani keeps Gatorade on hand.

“We’re just reminding them that it’s a very important ceremony,” he says. “All the fun stuff aside, this is serious, and I try to set that tone.”

The good news is that indoor commencements, like the one Saturday, don’t require nearly as much sprucing as the ones where the students have been slow roasting under the sun for hours.

And how do the seniors react when Bellani approaches?

“They always seem grateful,” he says, smiling. “There are even some hugs.”

Saturday, May 13: Senior Sunrise

The sun does not show its face at 6:19 a.m., but the Class of 2023 certainly does.

Despite gloomy skies and soggy environs, several hundred Denison students gather outside the Sigma Chi house to participate in the annual Senior Sunrise. A class that had its first year on campus prematurely ended by a worldwide pandemic was not going to let a little rain and wet grounds soil the mood.

“It’s a Denison tradition, and we wanted to be a part of it,” Kwaku Akuffo says while sitting next to his good friend Aniaha Ortiz. “We wanted to come out and be among our friends and around the people who have seen us grow into the human beings we are today.”

As confetti guns pop to celebrate the occasion, Ortiz nods in agreement. “I wanted to start the day off shedding some tears with my closest friends. This is my last day on The Hill, and I wanted it to be special.”

The seniors begin to arrive around 5:40 a.m. and stay well beyond the 6:19 official sunrise. Some sit on wet blankets arm in arm, heads resting on neighboring shoulders, as they stare down at the Mitchell Recreation and Athletics Center, the site of today’s commencement.

Photos with proud parents and family members are hours away. But this moment belongs to the Class of 2023, and they try to hold on to it and each other for as long as possible. There are still about 30 students — some of whom hadn’t gone to bed yet — lingering on the road outside of Sigma Chi at 7:10 a.m. swaying to the music from the speakers.

“Every single person I know who has come to Denison has done this on the morning of Commencement, and I wasn’t going to miss out on it,” Trevor Foreman says. “So, what? The sun didn’t come out. We’re still here.”

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