Professors say goodbye to the class of 2020

A graduate student shakes a faculty member's hand after receiving their degree at NAU's Spring 2019 Commencement May 11, 2019.

As the semester comes to an end, graduating seniors are saying their final goodbyes. Although classes were moved online for the rest of the semester, professors across the university said they valued their time with the class of 2020 and wish them well.

Through the portion of the semester taught online, Gretchen Gee, principal lecturer and associate chair in the NAU Department of Politics & International Affairs, said she struggled to maintain the same level of challenge and enrichment her classes provided when face-to-face.

Gee said she has numerous fond memories with her seniors this semester, including engaging class discussions. Although the layout of her classes changed considerably, she said the experience has been memorable even via video chat. Specifically, Gee said she will remember her students introducing their pets and finding the humor in technology.

As their college careers come to an end, Gee said she wants her students to remember they will get through this time in their lives. Although things may feel uncertain, she said the situation is not entirely negative.

“My students have worked hard, they have learned a great deal and gained important knowledge and skills, and they will have opportunities to demonstrate this,” Gee said. “In some ways, living through hardships makes them even more accomplished. They know how to endure and how to make the most of the opportunities they have. I believe that they will come out of this even stronger.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Gee said it may be difficult for graduates to find jobs immediately after college. She explained the importance of being patient and staying motivated even if achieving one’s goals may take longer than they originally planned.

However, new opportunities may come out of the unexpected event, Gee said. She encourages her students to embrace different experiences they may encounter, as it could help them gain knowledge and understanding. Gee described her students as individually unique and said they should never compare themselves to anyone else.

“They each have their own strengths and skills and they should carve out lives that maximize these things,” Gee said.

Her capstone class was a special experience to share with the seniors, Gee said. The students researched and wrote about a topic related to what could change the world.

To celebrate their accomplishments, Gee and her senior students are holding a graduation picnic while socially distanced. Gee said she wishes she could hug each and every one of her students and tell them how proud she is.

“I’d also tell them to live lives that are focused on something bigger than themselves,” Gee said. “Find something that they believe gives life greater meaning, and work to help accomplish those goals. Serve others.”

Similarly, Andrew Dzeguze, lecturer in the same department as Gee, taught a political science capstone class this semester, which focused on immigration issues. This was Dzeguze’s first semester teaching at NAU and he said he found the dedication of his students inspiring.

A moment Dzeguze said was surreal was the news that classes were moved online. The announcement email was sent as he entered his classroom, leaving his students to give him the news.

“I'll admit I had a hard time getting through that and telling them that no matter what, I'd be available in some way for the rest of the semester without breaking down,” Dzeguze said. “I meant it, and I'm trying to live up to it, but it is very weird to not have them around.”

Dzeguze said he wants his senior students to remember to be kind to themselves. He said it is essential that everyone understands this is not what they signed up for and that it is important to be respectful of other people, especially those who are still working.

As far as the academic part of the lives of his students, Dzeguze said he wants them to keep everything in perspective. He described the situation as survivable and possible to move on after this semester.

“I believe in you, your other instructors believe in you,” Dzeguze said. “Please believe in yourselves.”

While the current situation can be burdensome, Dzeguze said to look at it as an opportunity and that his students will overcome the obstacles they face and have great stories to tell in the future. He said everyone is the hero in their own story.

Life after college will be a fresh experience for graduates, Dzeguze said. He said he hopes his students have spent time thinking about their interests and jobs they will find rewarding. He said great commitments such as graduate school and law school will always be there and he encourages his students to indulge in other interests they may have first.

“I hope you have the best of everything, long lives filled with happiness, experience and worthwhile endeavors,” Dzeguze said. “I hope you always retain a desire to learn and a willingness to admit your own ignorance because when we become too sure of ourselves we set ourselves up for a fall. I do not hope you have a life of ease, for a life without struggle is generally a life that has resulted in little or no wisdom, and almost certainly will not have the accomplishments I know you are capable of.”

Although he expects many of his students to leave Flagstaff, Dzeguze said he hopes they will return in the future. He described his time with the class of 2020 as a gift and an opportunity for growth for him as well as his students.

Looking back on their time at NAU, Dzeguze said he wants his students to have a new way of looking at the world. He said the world is full of dedicated and resourceful people who are necessary to help make a change, and he explained that his students are those people.

“Thank you, above all else, for letting me into your lives, and sharing just a little bit of your journey with me,” Dzeguze said. “What I have seen and heard and felt fills me with joy and a sense of optimism for the future, and has made my time with you more worthwhile than I could ever express. Thank you, class of 2020.”

Despite the major changes in her classes, Kathleen McGeever, professor and chair of the NAU Department of Theatre, said her students adapted exceptionally to a new mode of performance. As the class could no longer perform in a traditional theater, McGeever said she moved their show online.

As her senior students enter a new phase of their lives, McGeever said she hopes they remember to stay passionate and use each opportunity they have to grow. She said artists and storytellers are an essential part of society, especially during the current health crisis.

“We help humanity to process what is happening, while the scientists and social sciences help us to fight the crisis,” McGeever said. “Processing and fighting are important for a two-pronged approach. Humanity needs meaning.”

Although they couldn’t perform their show in the way they wanted, McGeever said her students acquired useful skills from this setback — including the ability to navigate challenges.

McGeever also said she hopes her students remember to stay resilient during difficult times. While the semester has been chaotic for everyone, she said she would like her students to look at it from a different perspective.

“Reflect on it, not negatively, but what you learned about yourself,” McGeever said. “I think we all are doing just that — faculty, staff and students alike.”

Entering the spring semester, McGeever said her goal was to help her students build and produce an amazing show. Through the short time she had with her students, she said she enjoyed watching the improvement and hard work of each individual.

While McGeever worked with students of all academic years, she said she wants her senior students to remember the obstacles they may have encountered during college as well as the rewards. Although she described graduation as the beginning for seniors, McGeever said she would have a difficult time saying goodbye to her students.

“This group is a special one for me,” McGeever said. “I have seen such tremendous growth and have worked closely with a core of them since freshman year. I actually wouldn’t say goodbye, I would say, ‘See you later,’ because theater majors stay connected and we love hearing from them!”

Bruce Fox, professor in the NAU School of Forestry, taught several classes to students of many academic years this semester. However, he said his experience with the seniors has been special, as he has known most of these students for several years.

While many might consider forestry to simply be a profession, Fox described the field as a calling. He explained there are endless responsibilities that come with a job in forestry but a forestry degree prepares an individual for so much more, and they can be successful regardless of whether or not they end up working in the field.

“I have three criteria that I use to help look at success,” Fox said. “One is are you doing something you like to do. Number two, can you support yourself and your family and loved ones. And number three, you give back. And if you have those three, then that's a successful career. That's a successful life.”

Fox said he will miss the class of 2020 due to the experiences they have shared over the past few years. Specifically, he described his memories of making jokes with his students and seeing them during the week.

Additionally, Fox said he is disappointed he will not be able to meet the families of his students at the commencement ceremony. He said he hopes the work his students did in his classes will prepare them for their future careers.

After 22 years of teaching at NAU, Fox explained the best part is developing a relationship with his students. He said he wishes the seniors the best, but will not wish them luck because they do not need it.

“I have enjoyed working with you all,” Fox said. “Especially those of you who I've known for four years now and seeing you grow and mature intellectually and in your knowledge of forestry. That's been really gratifying.”

After switching to online instruction, T. Mark Montoya, associate professor of ethnic studies in NAU's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, said he had to adjust his goals for his students. As his classes are typically very interactive, Montoya said he has been focusing on maintaining open communication with students.

Montoya said the spring semester was distinctive, as he had a difficult time getting into his regular routine. However, he explained that he was able to connect with his students again after the first couple of weeks. Looking back on the semester, Montoya said he will remember the special moments of understanding in students.

“The moments of interaction,” Montoya said. “The moments of faces when they get the material, the moments with the head nods and smiles and they're like, ‘Oh I know exactly what you’re talking about now.’”

While some students may be struggling to find the motivation for the rest of the semester, Montoya said all anyone can do is try. He explained his appreciation for the concept of transformative love, which is love that seeks well-being. His main priority is to help his students seek their well-being.

As his students encounter new jobs and people, Montoya said it is important to focus on three values: collaboration, autonomy and service. He explained everyone should know when to work with others, work by themselves or serve others. Montoya said he will continue to miss interacting with his students, especially the seniors.

“My heart breaks for the seniors, but I know the seniors, the class of 2020 will also be there to fix it,” Montoya said.

After their time at NAU, Montoya said he wants his students to know that challenges will always be in their lives and that roadblocks are what help individuals develop courage.

“Obstacles are part of the process,” Montoya said. “Learning is a process. When we reach these obstacles, we really have to know that they're also there to be challenged, to be confronted and to be crossed.”

Professors at NAU said they cherish the time they had with each senior. Faculty members agree that the class of 2020 was a great one.