May 10, 2021

Graduation ceremonies at Great Bay Community College on May 14th and 15th felt monumental and miraculous this spring, after the pandemic upended campus life for more than a year. Students, faculty, and staff bonded together to work through the challenges of remote learning and a mostly closed campus.

“This is a unique class. I am very proud of their resilience,” said Great Bay nursing professor Lori Mancuso.

After the chaos of the past year, this year’s on-campus graduation occurring this past weekend outside at the Portsmouth campus, under a tent – felt triumphant and refreshingly normal, said hospitality major Allison Johonnett, who praised the college for keeping everyone safe while moving forward with classes and programming.

“They hit the ground running,” said Johonnett, who graduated with an associate degree and is working in her field as a supervisor at PiNZ Bowl in Portsmouth. “I was so relieved how fast the college made the decision to transition to remote learning. Everything was safe and everybody was accessible. They jumped into action right away.”

Students found new ways to connect online, professors adjusted their courses to accommodate remote and hybrid learning, and staff members found workarounds to problems associated with a closed campus. Great Bay awarded a total of 330 diplomas, including degrees and certificates. A total of 183 graduates participated in this year’s ceremonies. In addition, 27 students who received their degrees last year during remote commencement ceremonies also participated in this year’s in-person affair.

“The students in the class of 2021 have surpassed our expectations in regard to the resiliency and flexibility they have applied to their learning,” said Tina Favara, Vice President of Student Success and Enrollment Management. “I say with confidence that our students received the same high standard of education regardless of the learning model and I am beyond proud of not only their success, but Great Bay’s ability to adjust and accommodate our students’ needs, both in and out of the classroom.”

Johonnett said she expected to lose student services during the shutdown, but that wasn’t the case, she said. She was pleased the Center for Academic Planning and Support was fully accessible despite being remote, along with the food pantry, which switched to curbside-pickup. She most appreciated the willingness and ability of professors to adapt quickly to online teaching. “Everyone showed their own style,” she said.

Maxwell Higginbottom credited the college with helping him stay connected to his student peers. He is immunocompromised, which means he had to be especially vigilant to stay isolated and safe. When Great Bay introduced an eSports league in the fall to help students connect, he joined right away, competing in the popular game Overwatch, which involves team-building strategies.

He and his peers got together remotely twice a week for practice and once a week for competition. “I was one of the first ones to avail myself of the league,” Higginbottom said. “I was so happy they offered it, because overall, I have really missed being on campus, and I am sure I am not the only one who feels that way.”

Being away from campus did not slow his progress toward his degree. He credited his professors and the college in general for making the transition to online learning relatively seamless. “I learn better in person than I do online, but the college was fantastic, and the professors were amazing. They had to adjust everything to teach remotely, and the college was very active in keeping students constantly updated as to policies and procedures,” he said.

According to Vice President of Academic Affairs, Lisa McCurley, faculty were committed to, above all, continuing to provide a quality education to students. “Regardless of the course the delivery mode, through the challenges, faculty creatively adapted their teaching. This has and will continue to positively impact learning opportunities for our students well beyond this pandemic.”

Most important, despite his health risks, Higginbottom always felt safe. Now fully vaccinated, he is eager to receive his degree in person and see other students. He will graduate with an associate degree in Psychology and plans to attend both Southern New Hampshire University and eventually the University of New Hampshire. “Everybody was supportive from the start,” he said. “I am grateful.”

Mancuso credited the students for overcoming the year’s unprecedented challenges, including mastering new technology associated with remote learning while still balancing work, homeschooling for the kids, and self-care. “As one student said about strategies for time management, ‘I will listen to my Zoom lectures while driving home from work or, while doing my cardio workout,’” Mancuso said. “How would any of us get through a pandemic without humor?”

And resilience.