JACKSON, Wyo. — Fourteen local Central Wyoming College students should have walked across a more traditional stage to receive their diplomas this year.
Then COVID-19 struck, and such gatherings were impossible. But graduating students and faculty found a creative way to celebrate anyway: from their cars.
CWC Jackson graduates celebrated Friday, May 8. They decorated their cars to parade from the Teton County Fairgrounds to the Center for the Arts parking lot, where CWC hosted a physically-distant graduation ceremony. Among the graduates were eight nurses, a Health Science major, a Computer Tech major, a future middle school teacher, and several Culinary Arts students, now graduates.
For students who had worked for years at the chance to celebrate this moment, the afternoon was bittersweet. But Culinary Arts graduate Said Jimenez chose to see it as a victory — or, at least, a moment in history.
“The class of 2020 is going to be something you read about in the history books,” said CWC Culinary Arts Student Said Jimenez. “The class of 2020 had to graduate in vehicles, six feet apart from each other. It feels good to be part of something bigger than yourself.”
Jimenez entered CWC’s culinary program right after high school. He’d been working in kitchens since he was 12 years old and knew he wanted to feed people for the rest of his life.
“There’s so much you can learn in a little town like this,” he said. “People come from all over the world to work.”
CWC’s culinary program allowed Jimenez to learn in a classroom during Jackson’s “off-season,” and learn through experience in local restaurants during the busy summer months. While the pandemic has closed many of his future job prospects, Jimenez is hopeful his experience and education will tee him up for success when businesses get back on their feet. One day, he hopes to run a business of his own.
“You have to look at the bright side,” Jimenez said.
For Computer Technology graduate Daniel Cardenas-Martinez, the experience and mentorship he gained from CWC set him up for an internship immediately after graduation. Cardenas-Martinez will begin his work in St. John’s Health’s IT Department next month.
“[CWC] gave me ideas and opened quite a few doors,” he said. “Thanks to one of my greatest teachers, I was able to get an internship at St. John’s Hospital… Experience is what matters, more than certifications.”
Cardenas-Martinez has always liked “putting Humpy Dumpty back together,” — fixing things, taking them apart and seeing how they work. CWC gave him the leg up he needed to do that professionally, even when it was hard. The college alone was an education in itself.
“If you’re willing to put in the work and effort, no matter if it takes three or four years, you can come out of it. It’s gonna be worth it,” he said. “There are ways to do it. It doesn’t matter how long it takes. Anyone can get through just by putting in the effort. That’s what counts.”
Cardenas-Martinez admitted he is sad about the semester he missed because of COVID-19. He was supposed to teach in high school classrooms, learn more from his professors, “make an impression and leave a print behind.” But he’s still proud of the work he did over three and a half years at CWC. He got his diploma, and he has a job lined up.
Central Wyoming College is also preparing a virtual online Commencement Celebration Video, where students will be featured in their regalia with their name, degree, and honors. The video will be made available in late June. The video will include a special message from Governor Gordon, President Dr. Brad Tyndall, Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Kathy Wells, and a short keynote speech from the winner of CWC’s student commencement speaker competition (TBA).
As far as Jimenez is concerned, COVID-19 offered the ultimate life lesson to the class of 2020. It forced students and teachers to adapt on a dime, to make sense of a new normal.
“Schools are changing in the matter of a day,” he said. “We have to look at how to adapt and how to overcome certain environments.”
And if you can do that, you can do anything.
“College is going to throw a lot of curveballs at you, and you have to learn how to deal,” he said. “It’s a matter of your point of view. If you look at it in a solutions-oriented way, you’re going to find a way. If you sit down for a second and start hesitating, you’re already losing the ride.”