2020 graduates offered opportunity to walk in 2021 commencement

May 13, 2021

COVID-19 shuttered many plans and events, including Newman University’s in-person commencement last spring. Because of this, 2020 graduates were invited to walk in the 2021 ceremony May 7. Nearly 100 graduates responded to a survey saying they wanted to come back, and more than 20 RSVPed and walked across the graduation stage this past weekend. The four following individuals shared what this opportunity meant to them and where their journey has taken them since graduating.

Claudius Ciecko

Claudius Ciecko

With Newman being to the Jets, because 2020 graduate Claudius Ciecko says his time at Newman “flew by.”

Ciecko, who earned his Bachelor of Science in biology with a concentration in pre-medicine, says he was grateful Newman invited last year’s graduates to participate in the 2021 commencement.

“It’s like true closure of the hard work that went into all four years,” Ciecko says. “Now I’m at the KU School of Medicine here in Wichita, so it’ll help make it more of a complete transition.”

Pre-med coursework isn’t easy, but Ciecko feels he received a lot of guidance from Newman faculty along the way.

“I feel like (Newman) prepared me really well,” he says. “I’ve made relationships, and I met a lot of people who I’ll be in contact with many years into the future that I won’t forget for a long time.”

When asked to sum up his undergraduate experience in one word, Ciecko says, “unforgettable,” which makes it all the more meaningful that he was able to walk across the stage at commencement.

“The entire experience now is special because last year we didn’t get to have a graduation, so coming back now means a lot being able to tie up loose ends,” he says.

Dana Cook

Dana Cook, who graduated in 2020, just completed her first full year of teaching kindergarten, and it’s all thanks to the education she received at Newman.

Cook was set on going to Emporia State University after completing the BEST program (Butler/Emporia Students to Teachers) at Butler Community College. Then a representative of Newman visited one of Cook’s classes.

Dana Cook

“I thought, I’m going to check it out just to see,” Cook says. “Then I enrolled that day.”

Despite becoming a Newman student in the middle of the year and working a full-time job simultaneously, Cook says she loved her experience. The small class sizes, faculty-to-student ratio and skill-building opportunities all stood out in Cook’s college search.

“Commencement was very important, and I’m grateful that the university opened it up to last year’s graduates to give them the opportunity to walk with this year’s graduates,” Cook says. “It’s a huge accomplishment for anybody to be able to do that.”

Cook enjoyed her student experience at Newman so much that she is enrolled in its ESOL Licensure Endorsement program. Once she finishes the program, Cook plans to pursue her master’s degree in either ESOL or reading curriculum.

Amy Valenti

A third-grade teacher at Seneca Elementary School in Seneca, Missouri, Amy Valenti and her family made the three-and-a-half-hour drive to attend Newman’s 2021 commencement.

Amy Valenti

“It was really important for me that my children get to see me graduate today and to see that special occasion, because it’s something they didn’t get to see the first time I graduated and now it’s come full circle,” she said. “I really wanted to celebrate that and have it mean something to them, too.”

In 2020, Valenti received her master’s degree in education with an emphasis on ESOL and curriculum instruction. She feels the degree has already helped her better understand curriculum and lesson planning and is looking forward to continuing her education when she begins pursuing a specialist degree in school psychology at Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, Kansas, this fall.

Even though it was a long haul back to Wichita for Valenti and her 4-, 12- and 15-year-old children, the oldest of whom had to miss his final baseball game of the season, it was absolutely worth the effort.

“I made the trip to graduate today, so I’m excited and it’s done a lot to propel me forward,” Valenti says.

Emily Larkin

Walking in the 2021 commencement after graduating last year with bachelor’s degrees in communications and theater “means everything” to Emily Larkin.

“Especially for first-generation college students, graduating college was such a momentous occasion, and I think being able to come back and be with my friends and really celebrate is really important,” she says. “Getting to celebrate the Newman mission is really important to me as well.”

As a choir alum, Larkin enjoyed the opportunity to sing at commencement as well.

2020 graduate Emily Larkin (in red stole) returned to sign with Newman’s Troubadours at commencement

“This has been my family for the past four years, going now five years,” she reflects. “So getting to sing with them, there’s just something special about that moment and about the moments that you get to share when you sing, and especially the song we’re singing now. It was actually the song we were supposed to sing at commencement last year, so it just adds that extra meaning to it as well.”

Larkin currently works as an admissions counselor at Newman and feels grateful for the chance to continue her journey at the university she holds so dearly.

“It’s really incredible to be able to bring in new students, prospective students, to really see what I saw in Newman and really get that community and family feel,” she says. “In two weeks, I start the Newman Master of Business Administration program with a concentration in leadership that I get to do because I’m an admissions counselor. And so that’s really where I think my degree of difference is going to start. Hopefully from there I can transform society.”