COLUMBIA — Graduates gathered in The Arena at Southwell Complex at Columbia College on Saturday for two commencement ceremonies held in honor of what Columbia College President Gerald Brouder called their tenacity.
The college hosted two ceremonies, one at noon and one at 3:30 p.m., in order to accommodate a graduating class of more than 500 students, said Brandi Herrman, associate director of public relations. Both were open to candidates from 18 campuses nationwide in addition to those from the flagship campus in Columbia.
University representatives stationed at the arena's double doors before the first ceremony directed friends and family to open seats, a task that grew more arduous as noon approached. The anticipatory chatter of those who had been seated all but drowned out the faint orchestral music floating through the gymnasium.
Sitting next to her mother in a row of two folding chairs, Amy Taylor patiently watched the slideshow at the helm of the auditorium, a mixture of administrative announcements and candid photos of graduates. She had traveled two hours from Eolia to see her younger sister, Jimmi Burnham, receive her bachelor's degree of arts in photography.
Taylor said Burnham developed her love of taking photos in high school. Although she has no concrete post-graduation plan, Burnham has an established clientele base at her alma mater, Clopton High School, where she routinely takes senior pictures.
The youngest of three children, Burnham will be the first to receive a four-year degree. "I'm very excited for her," Taylor said.
Excitement spread across the expansive gym as the first strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" played beneath the tangle of conversations. Much of the crowd clambered to its feet to search for graduates among the processional ranks. Recognition caused a smile here, a gaping mouth there, as family members spotted their daughters, brothers, nieces one by one.
Suzanne Tourville, mathematics professor and chairperson of the college's Computer and Mathematical Sciences Department, was jokingly aghast at the sea of black robes before her.
"I wondered what it was like to be up here," she said, laughing. "Is it over yet?"
Tourville then set aside comedy to deliver an address on the gradual nature of achievement. Citing studying, laundry and weight loss, she asserted, "Little things can add up to be big things."
She went on to urge graduates to seek new experiences: "Travel is what I wish for all of you."
For emphasis, Tourville related her own experience in the Solomon Islands. There, she became acquainted with Reggie, the chief of an island whose population totaled no more than 40. As she was leaving, he asked her to write. She did, packing up a note in addition to a stack of National Geographic magazines.
In closing, Tourville read the reply she later received. Reggie thanked her for the articles on astronauts and fish hatching in the sand. "I have never seen this, but I've read about it, and now I know," he said.
Being a master of symbols, not words, Tourville declined to try to verbalize what the letter meant to her. Rather, she summarized the sentiment it led her to: "We have more chances to make a small difference than we do to make a big difference."
And it was the small moments that made Columbia College's back-to-back ceremonies. As the first group of graduates crossed the stage to receive powder blue hoods, applause and whoops erupted from the crowd.
Turning to the person beside her, a woman recognized the achievement of her graduate in a quieter fashion.
"That's my grandson," she whispered.