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'COVID didn't stop me': Thousands of WSU students graduate virtually

WSU graduate Marcus Gray reflects on college and what he learned about himself during the pandemic.

PULLMAN, Wash. — More than 4,800 Washington State University students officially graduated on Saturday. After a tumultuous year, Cougs are being recognized virtually. 

WSU’s virtual commencement and celebration also includes video clips shared by graduating students. In addition to the event, WSU’s five physical campuses across the state are hosting events for their graduating classes.

Hundreds of WSU Pullman graduates and their families participated in the May 1 drive-thru celebration on campus with faculty, staff and special guests gathered along the route.

"You are a Coug, and nothing can ever take that from you, not even a pandemic," WSU Global Campus Chancellor Dave Cillay said in the opening video. "Congratulations and go Cougs!"

One of the 2021 graduates is Strategic Communications major Marcus Gray. 

“COVID didn't stop me from graduating,” Gray said. 

He moved into his Pullman apartment in August of 2020, excited to spend his senior year with his best friends. As students kept returning back to the small college town, coronavirus cases began to spike.

"Pullman was one of the worst places in America with COVID," he said. "That was the most stressful time because we didn't know who to trust and what to do. August to December was really stressful, at least for me."

RELATED: Pullman restaurants, businesses prepare for move back to Phase 2

In April, Whitman County was one of three counties moving back to Phase 2 after failing to meet the metrics outlined in Governor Jay Inslee's reopening plan. In late March, WSU leaders sent a letter saying that student gatherings and parties had led to an increase in COVID-19 cases. 

In the fall, his classes went completely online, emergency health orders limited gatherings and normal college experiences — football games, Greek life activities and having a class wide celebratory graduation drink at The Coug — were cancelled. Spending more time in his apartment, Gray thought about his career path and took a hard look at his goals.

"This year was hard, especially when you're graduating, like you're about to go in the real world," he added. "But you got to deal with what you're given." 

Instead of looking for jobs in advertising or public relations, he realized he has to follow what his heart really wants.

"Honestly I think COVID pushed me towards coaching," he said. 

Gray grew up playing football and fell in love with coaching once he turned 18. After his first semester of senior year, he decided to come home to help coach high schoolers right when athletics started again. 

"If COVID wasn't here, I don't think I'd be where I am right now with the coaching opportunities that I have," he added. "So, kind of a blessing and a curse, but without COVID I don't know where I'd be right now."

Credit: Marcus Gray
WSU graduate Marcus Gray reflects on college and what he learned about himself during the pandemic.

"They are going to be a class unlike probably any others, hopefully, in our lifetimes," WSU Marketing and Communications Vice President Phil Weiler said. "Kudos to them for a job well done."

Washington State University has joined a handful of higher education institutions that are requiring COVID-19 vaccines in the fall of 2021, including others in the state. 

WSU students and staff will have to provide proof of the COVID-19 vaccination to engage in activities at a campus or location. All students living in university-owned housing will need to provide proof of vaccination, or approved exemption, by Aug. 6, 2021. Seattle University and Pacific Lutheran University, both in Washington state, will also require that students are fully vaccinated before arriving on campus in the fall.

"Even though it's not the traditional way of me walking in the Palouse, or Martin Stadium or the basketball stadium, I'm still gonna keep going, you know, don't stop," Gray said. "My biggest emphasis is don't give up, you can do anything if you put your mind to it." 

Marcus is currently evaluating coaching options at different colleges. Like he says, the pandemic showed him that life is too short to not follow your passion.