With a global pandemic underway, the last 12 months hasn’t exactly been a traditional way to wind down an undergraduate college career. But Georgia Gwinnett College graduating senior Yesmeen Jaser said that made Thursday’s commencement ceremonies sweeter.
GGC held in-person commencement ceremonies for its Class of 2021 at the Infinite Energy Arena Thursday, and an in-person ceremony for the Class of 2020 Thursday night. A virtual commencement ceremony, for people still concerned about being at large events, was broadcast Wednesday night.
“This ceremony, it means a little more because we’ve struggled through a pandemic together, and we’ve survived it,” Jaser said.
Thursday’s ceremonies were a big step toward normalcy for GGC since it was unable to hold in-person commencement ceremonies at end of the spring 2020 ceremony because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were about 750 graduates in GGC’s Class of 2021, according college officials.
“GGC has provided you with the knowledge and skills needed to be successful outside of the walls of this college, and you’ve already proven yourself more than capable of managing change,” GGC President Jann Joseph told the graduates at a ceremony Thursday afternoon.
“But, remember change brings the opportunity to grow so don’t be afraid of it. Take every advantage if you can to commit yourself to life-long learning. Everyone of you has the ability to make a tremendous impact on our society so extend your GGC family to the world.”
When the pandemic hit Georgia in March 2020, GGC joined other educational institutions in quickly switching to online learning. Due to the pandemic’s ongoing impact, many classes at GGC were offered virtually this year as well.
For the roughly 100 members of the Class of 2020 who showed up to participate in the in-person ceremony, Thursday night was especially special or, as Joseph put it, “a long time coming” for the graduates, who only got an online ceremony a year ago.
“We are here to celebrate you again, the right way, our unstoppable Class of 2020,” Joseph said. “Thank you for coming back for the opportunity to walk across the stage because we know this is a dream postponed.
“Alumni of 2020, you spoke and we listened. You wanted, and quite possible needed, to be in this space together and take that ever important walk across this stage. Although we weren’t able to fulfill your dreams last year, we are here to do just that.”
Jaser, who earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and delivered the student address at ceremonies Thursday, said all of her classes were done almost completely virtually this year, although a few lab projects could be done in-person.
“We had hybrid versions of classes,” she said. “We were able to go inside the labs and do a few experiments.”
The pandemic was just one of many challenges Jaser overcame to get to her college degree. She is a first-generation Palestian-American (who was born in America), but her family moved to Jerusalem when she was growing up, then moved to Lawrenceville when she was in high school.
Due to an issue getting credits transferred to a Gwinnett high school that would have required her to redo her first two years of high school, she opted to instead get her GED. She then got married, and later divorced, while she was studying at GGC.
And, finally there was a global pandemic that hit late in her second-to-last year of college, and it continued through her final year.
She credited the GGC faculty and staff — who she said “became like friends” — with helping her and all of this year’s graduates get through all of the adversities they faces.
“It was absolutely life-changing,” Jaser said of her experience. “I didn’t just have my parents as my support system, or my family as my support system, I had the GGC faculty and staff by my side, and they helped me every day.
“I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for them.”
Jaser is the first member of her family to graduate from college. She will now prepare to take her MCAT tests and apply to med schools. NYU is her dream med school, and she is also looking at other schools, such as UCLA, Emory and UGA.
“I want to become a cardiothoracic surgeon,” she said. “I actually have a very silly slogan: ‘I fix hearts, not break them.’”
A sense of overcoming a heavy obstacle was shared by other students at GGC’s commencement ceremonies. One graduate at a ceremony held Thursday morning had the message, “It always seems impossible until it’s done” glued to her graduation cap.
The pandemic’s impact was felt on the commencement ceremonies. The in-person ceremonies were socially distanced. The college, which has traditionally held one ceremony, broke it up into two ceremonies for the Class of 2021 with graduates of some schools walking in the morning and graduates of other schools walking in the afternoon.
Several graduates also wore face masks with their graduation attire.
While there were differences because of COVID-19, Joseph closed out the ceremonies by invoking one tradition that goes back long before the pandemic.
“At GGC, we end everything with a very simple anthem, and that is ‘Go be great, and go Grizzlies,’” she said.
The Gwinnett County Fairgrounds was buzzing once again on Saturday as attendees of the seventh annual Generations Expo: 50+ Boomers and Seniors live event went booth by booth collecting topical information.
All around people smiled at each other as they exclaimed, “It’s nice to see you again!”
The free event was hosted by the Daily Post and presented by Northeast Georgia Health System and Clover Health. It included nearly 50 vendors, free health screenings, and presentations about key topics of interest to those age 50 and over.
The event was canceled last year due to COVID-19, but one of the busiest booths this year was for Expedia Cruises as people showed excitement for the improving conditions of the pandemic.
“People are so excited to be out and about and they’re so ready to travel again,” said Expedia Cruises Travel Consultant Bonnie Johnson. “You know, people haven’t been able to travel over the last year and a half or at least a year now so they’re very anxious to hear about what’s available for travel and when it’s going to start up again. Everybody’s tired of COVID. They’re really anxious to be able to plan trips and have the world open up again.”
Currently, she said, cruises are supposed to start in late summer to early fall, and Expedia Cruises has already started booking trips for the end of the year and early 2022. Additionally, many people have booked land travel trips for summer vacations in a few months.
“It’s really becoming our new normal,” Johnson said. “We’re getting back to normal again.”
She guessed that many of the people who stopped by her booth were in their 60s to late 70s. Genevieve Rupley of Suwanee said she herself was curious about the future of travel. However, that was not the only reason she was there on Saturday.
“I was actually wanting to get information for my significant other who’s turning 65 this year and see if there was anything I could get for him to help him some because it’s a difficult process in my opinion,” she said.
While at the event, she sat in on presentations from speakers Blake Morris with The Lloyd Group and Steve Aleksandrowicz with Medicare and Other Red Tape.
Morris addressed top retirement concerns and how to plan for them in a post-pandemic world. He said there are five areas that advisors at The LLoyd Group look at to help everyday people deal with retirement planning — volatility, inflation, taxes, healthcare and money out of money.
“A common question I get is was the COVID crash normal?” he said. “No, it was highly unusual, but we have to plan for it. Part of what we have to do for retirement planning is we have to make sure that you plan for the market dropping because it is going to happen.”
He added that one of the biggest lessons from the pandemic is that things will change and so he advised people to have a plan that is adaptable.
“Have a written income plan and quit worrying,” Morris said.
Meanwhile, Aleksandrowicz provided a roadmap to Medicare.
According to Aleksandrowicz, the average life expectancy in 1966 when Medicare was first started was about 72.5. Today, over 61 million Americans are on medicare and the life expectancy has risen to 83. That means, he said, that more than three times as many people are on Medicare now and are living twice as long.
“So Medicare has evolved since 1966 and all the options that go with it,” Aleksandrowicz said.
Lance Martin of Sugar Hill said the presentations were helpful to him in particular because although he’s 53 and things like retirement are still a little down the road, he wants to know about the services that are available to him.
“I decided to come just for overall health reasons,” Martin said. “I ended up getting my blood pressure checked, and I was told that it was slightly elevated. So that was good to know because that was a surprise to me because usually I’m in the normal range, so I need to get on top of that and figure out why it was that way today.
“Everybody seems to be so helpful, and I’m just glad that we can have this today and be here because we’ve had to miss things like this in the past. Hopefully, this is the start of good things to come and means that everything is going to open back up again.”
Johnson, who said this was her first live event of the year, said she was glad to be out and about too.
“It’s nice meeting people again,” she said. “We’ve all felt the crunch of COVID and it’s just a nice experience to be out and meeting the public again. We’ve all missed it.”
Four people were recently arrested in connection to a murder that occurred at a home in Dacula in February.
Gwinnett County Police announced Friday night that Loganville residents Kennedy Collins and Jocelyn Spencer, both 17, were arrested along with two 16-year-old juvenile females from Snellville in connection with the murder of Loganville resident Faith Burns, 20.
Gwinnett police are investigating a homicide that occurred Sunday in the Dacula area.
Burns was shot on Feb. 14 in the street in front of a residence on Uniwattee Trail in Dacula and later died from her injuries at a local hospital. At the time, police said they believed the shooting was related to a domestic dispute.
Another individual, Snellville resident Damia Mitchell, 17, turned herself in to police Feb. 16 in relation to the shooting. Collins was arrested March 17 and Spencer was arrested Friday, according to Gwinnett County jail records.
Gwinnett County police said 17-year-old Damia Mitchell of Snellville, who was wanted on felony murder charges, has turned herself in.
The suspects are charged with felony murder and aggravated assault. Mitchell is also charged with unlawful for a person to employ or associated with a criminal street gang to conduct or participate in criminal activity; possession of a pistol or revolver by a person under 18 years of age — 1st offense; and possession of a firearm or knife during the commission of, or attempt to commit, certain felonies.
Anyone who has information about the murder is asked to call detectives at 770-513-5300 or Crime Stoppers, which lets tipsters remain anonymous, at 404-577-8477. They can also visit www.stopcrimeATL.com.
A cash reward is offered by Crime Stoppers for information that leads to an arrest and indictment. Tipsters are asked to reference case No. 21-011934.