SUMTER, S.C. — Students of USC Sumter were honored with a drive-thru graduation Wednesday.
COVID-19 canceled the traditional graduation ceremony for USC Sumter, so faculty decided to improvise while still maintaining social distancing.
"We'd seen other schools doing drive-thru graduation ceremonies, so we decided to take this on and try our own version of that," said Alethia Hummel, Marketing and Public Relations Director for USC Sumter.
The idea came from Lisa Rosdail, who leads USC Sumter's Opportunity Scholars Program. After others heard about her drive-thru ceremony to hand out awards to her students, university leaders figured, why not do this for everyone?
At 5 p.m. Wednesday, instead of walking the stage, students piled in the car for a drive-thru ceremony around the USC Sumter Administration Building.
"The closer we got to the date, I got more and more excited because I was like, 'I get to put this [graduation gown] on! I get to wear it!' said graduate Jessica Reid.
Reid earned her associate of arts degree and plans to finish her bachelor degree through USC Aiken.
"I did my pictures in [my cap and gown], but I was like, 'Ugh, hang it back up, see it again in two years!' Then I was like, 'Nope! I get to put it on!'" said Reid.
As students drove by, family and friends cheered them on.
"It was wonderful to be able to have that moment to see them drive-thru," said Jaime Yanesh.
Yanesh's daughter, Clarissa, is a graduate of Crestwood High School and earned her associate degree at USC Sumter through their Early College Program.
"It wasn't quite the same as going across the stage, but they did a really nice job calling all their names, they played Pomp and Circumstance," said Yanesh. "It just meant a lot to be able to see it instead of just sitting at the TV watching a virtual one."
For Patricia Lee, seeing her two granddaughters graduating was a special moment. She says USC Sumter is also her alma mater.
"I have two granddaughters. They are two years apart," said Lee. "I got my two-year degree from this school. Now both of them are getting their degree from this school. Their mom went to this school."
Lee's granddaughter, Diamond, will head to Clemson University where she will study early childhood education. Lee's other granddaughter, Joy, will attend Savannah State where she will study criminal justice.
At the first podium of the procession, graduates names were called. At the end of the procession, next to a giant white tent, Dean Michael Sontagg and other faculty members handed gifts to the students. The goodies included USC Sumter tassels, earbuds and yard signs.
Diplomas will be sent to students in the mail.
"In the beginning it was heartbreak. 'Hey, I'm not going to be able to have the traditional commencement'," said Sonntag. "But I hope with a new look on it, looking back they'll say, 'Hey that was really cool. That was something new.'"
For the drive-thru ceremony, students were encouraged to decorate their cars. Many strapped balloons to their cars, while writing encouraging words on the windows.
Graduate Citaly Rios did all of the above, while writing, "Caution, #QuarantineGraduation2020" on her SUV.
"We just wanted to do what they told us to do, just decorate your car," said Rios. "We did that because we knew we weren't going to have a normal graduation. So we went all out."
Rios earned her associate of science degree Wednesday. She plans to attend school for two more years to earn a bachelor degree in accounting.
For graduates like Lora Brown, this milestone will be shared with her daughter.
"It's a huge celebration because my daughter Miracle graduated from Crestwood High School this year and then I'm graduating from USC Sumter this year, so it's just one big party because we all graduated!" said Brown.
Brown earned her associate of arts degree Wednesday. She says she will continue online classes with USC's Palmetto College to get her Bachelor's Degree of Information Management and Services.
"It took me 23 years to get my Associates. I started here in 1994, then life happened, then I just decided I wanted to do this. So I came back and I finally got my degree," said Brown.
Watching the procession from another white tent near the first podium were faculty members of USC Sumter, including Dr. Bianca Rowlett, an Assistant Professor of History.
"I wish them the best in future education, in life, in marriage, in family. I'm just very, very proud of them and I hope they're proud of themselves."
This year, USC Sumter had 130 students in their graduating class.
USC Sumter summer session starts July 6. Hummel says they're hoping to be back on campus in about a month, and they're planning for on-campus classes this fall.
For more information, including how to apply, visit USCSumter.edu.