DAYTON, Ohio — Gabriella Rice graduated from the University of Dayton in 2020 with a degree in international business.

Well, sort of.

What You Need To Know

  • The University of Dayton planned a weekend of events for the class of 2020

  • More than 1,400 undergrads didn't get to walk that spring because of COVID-19

  • The weekend will include a formal "cap and gown" ceremony and an open house and "welcome back" block party

  • More than 800 family, friends will take part as well

Like colleges and universities across the nation, UD suspended in-person classes in March of that year because of COVID-19's emergence.

On March 10, 2020, Rice grabbed a few of the belongings from her off-campus house and headed home to Grand Rapids, Mich. Within 48 hours of the announcement, the campus was empty.

At the time, UD students were only days from leaving for spring break. The school’s initial announcement told students they’d remain off campus for at least two weeks following their return from break. 

Gabriella Rice (scarf) poses with several of her housemates during her senior year at the University of Dayton. (Photo courtesy of Gabriella Rice)
Gabriella Rice (scarf) poses with several of her housemates during her senior year at the University of Dayton. (Photo courtesy of Gabriella Rice)

Like many of her peers, Rice expected to have a few class sessions online, maybe even finish out the term that way. But she thought she’d be back on campus at some point, at least in time for graduation.

That never happened.

Now, two years later, Rice and 421 of her peers will be back on campus to make up for lost time and to get the graduation ceremony they earned. 

UD will hold an in-person celebration — complete with graduates in cap and gown — and other traditional graduation-related events this weekend.

The “Cap and Gown Celebration” will take place at noon Saturday at the Marycrest Amphitheater on the east end of the Central Mall, opposite Kennedy Union.

“I’m so excited to go back,” said Rice, who also minored in Chinese and Asian studies. “We know it’s not the same as a graduation ceremony in the traditional sense, but I’m looking forward to walking across the stage and seeing my old friends.”

For Rice, and hundreds of her classmates, the pandemic robbed them of the chance to end their college career the way they dreamed it would when they enrolled four years prior. 

They didn’t get to walk across the stage or shake the hand of UD President Eric Spina. They didn’t get to hug their classmates or take part in any of the traditional pomp and circumstance. They didn’t even get to take photos at their favorite campus haunts with friends and family.

There was no chance to say goodbye to the place they’d called home for the formative years of their young adult lives.

UD held an online graduation ceremony for the class of 2020. Rice called it “nice” and voiced appreciation “but it wasn’t the same,” she said.

This weekend represents a chance to end their college experience the right way, Rice said. She’s excited to get to shake the hand of UD’s president.

“I’ve been waiting to say ‘welcome home’ to the class of 2020 for two years,” Spina said.

To help Rice mark the occasion, her father, Richard, will travel to Dayton from Michigan; her aunt and uncle, who live in Springboro, Ohio, will also attend. 

In total, more than 800 friends and family plan to take part in the weekend of festivities.

The university promised the class of 2020 a formal, on-campus commencement when the state of Ohio lifted public health restrictions.

UD officials thought about hosting an event last season but deemed it wasn’t yet safe to arrange a proper event given the status of COVID-19 and the logistical considerations.

Rice, who helped start the Asian American Association on campus, was one of a handful of students from the class of 2020 that the university invited to take part in planning a full weekend of events.

The celebration will include a welcome reception Friday night in the Connor Flight Deck at UD Arena. Rice plans to go out afterwards to meet some of her former housemates for dinner and a night out on the Brown Street strip of bars and clubs.

She also plans to get off campus and explore some of her favorite Dayton areas. Over the years, she grew fond of the famed Deeds Carillon, which she fondly recalls being “lit up like a Christmas tree” every winter.

An aerial view of the University of Dayton campus. (Photo courtesy of University of Dayton)
An aerial view of the University of Dayton campus. (Photo courtesy of University of Dayton)

On Saturday, the university will host an open house tour of the campus and a “block party” reunion following the ceremony.

It’s only been two years, but Rice joked that she wonders if any of her professors remember her given all that’s transpired over the past 26 months.

“I’m really excited to catch up with everyone,” she said. “So much has happened these past two years. We’ve all grown up so much.”

Rice and the rest of the planning committee had to find a way to entice people back to campus. They didn’t know if they should hold a formal ceremony or more of a homecoming reunion.

“It’s been two years and we’re all scattered all over the country and fully into our careers at this point,” said Rice, who after graduation took a job as a territory manager with Tectronic Industries in Flint, Mich.

In the next few days, she’ll move to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where she’ll serve as an executive assistant in the office of Tectronic’s CEO. She decided she had to make a stop in Dayton before she packs up her U-Haul truck, though.

Rice is one of roughly 28% of the 1,490 members who plan to take part in the festivities this weekend.

Another is December Lee, a medicinal chemistry graduate. She has a much shorter trip to Dayton from Columbus. But she’s just as excited to be back on campus and to reunite with friends.

“We didn’t get to say goodbye to each other,” said Lee, who’s in the pharmacy graduate program at The Ohio State University. “We left for spring break and thought we’d be back in three weeks, so it took a while to get over the fact that we weren’t going to have a graduation ceremony.” 

Sean Newhouse, a political science and communication graduate, said he wasn’t sure the in-person graduation would ever occur. But he’s ready and excited to get back to Dayton.

“It’s kind of unique because in an alternate universe graduation, that probably would have been the last time that I would have seen everyone, but now I’ll see them two years later and see if we’ve changed or if we’re all the same,” said Newhouse, who works as a Congressional committees reporter in Washington, D.C.

Reconnecting with former classmates is the main attraction for many of the former students.

“It’s the people; it’s the campus; it’s the Dayton community,” Rice said. “I’m really excited to be back home again.”