From a nook in the Walb Student Union, Johnny Min watched on a recent weekday as orientation groups toured the Purdue University Fort Wayne facility.
Min once was a familiar face during such traditions.
The 22-year-old often photographed campus life, including events and students studying, for the university's marketing team, but on Friday a camera lens will more likely be pointed at him.
Min is one of about 1,400 students Purdue Fort Wayne plans to graduate in two ceremonies at Memorial Coliseum.
A year after being disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the traditional joint commencement exercises for Purdue Fort Wayne and Indiana University Fort Wayne mark the end of college graduation season in northeast Indiana.
The IU School of Nursing-Fort Wayne program is celebrating its first class of graduates to receive an Indiana University diploma after the realignment of IPFW in 2018.
“Their success is a direct reflection of dedication and hard work within the context of an international pandemic, affecting how and where they learned as well as their clinical practice as students,” Robin Newhouse, dean and distinguished professor at IU School of Nursing, said in a statement.
IU Fort Wayne will also recognize graduates from medical imaging and dental programs at the in-person commencement for an anticipated 132 total graduates, according to a news release.
Such a ceremony was in doubt just a few months ago.
In early March, Purdue Fort Wayne leaders reached a deadline to notify Memorial Coliseum whether it would keep its May date for commencement, and an important planning aspect remained unknown – the speed of the state's COVID-19 vaccination rollout, Chancellor Ronald Elsenbaumer said.
Meanwhile, he said, the university was crafting a “less formal but more festive” outdoor option on campus for May 15. Elements of that celebration were well received, but the chancellor knew it would be a poor replacement.
“Clearly, many of our graduating students and their families had a specific expectation for how their commencement ceremony would unfold – the pomp and circumstance of the academic procession, walking across the stage and appearing on video screens, formal photos in regalia, etc.,” Elsenbaumer said in a statement.
The vaccination program's rapid expansion in March enabled the university to change course, he said.
With a mid-June date, the chancellor said, the university could get back on Memorial Coliseum's calendar along with giving participants and guests more time to get vaccinated.
“We can't overstate how important that is and will continue to be for our return to normal,” Elsenbaumer said.
The extra month also gave organizers a chance to include as many traditional elements as possible, he added.
“Events of this magnitude don't happen overnight,” Elsenbaumer said. “This is such a special milestone for all involved. It celebrates the hard work of students who have earned Purdue University and Indiana University degrees, which is no small task. We take great pride in bringing back a level of formality that matches the significance of the achievement.”
Min – who has commencement tickets for his parents and younger brother – is glad the university opted for the traditional ceremony.
“For us, being able to walk is something,” said Min, who studied graphic design and now works as art director at Creative Cat Marketing downtown.
Min capped his Purdue Fort Wayne experience as a top-50 student, a particularly fulfilling honor because he strives to make his parents proud.
They sacrificed a lot for his life in the United States, said Min, who was born in Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma.
His father came to America first and has worked jobs at places including a gas station, restaurant and factory, Min said. His mother sacrificed her architectural career to reunite the family, he said, noting she took on other roles in Fort Wayne.
“They sacrificed their dreams to help me follow my own passions and dreams,” Min said. “My parents are the type to feed me their favorite food, and they won't eat it because they wanted me to have it.”
Min enrolled in Purdue Fort Wayne, known then as IPFW, after graduating from Concordia High School, where a graphic design class cemented his career goals.
Min wants to be close to his family, which contributed to his decision to attend Purdue Fort Wayne, but said he dreams of photographing various cultures for National Geographic.
With tattoos honoring his family on his right hand and upper left arm, Min will bring his loved ones wherever his talent and bachelor of arts degree take him.
“I always put my family first,” he said.
Graduates by the numbers
Purdue University Fort Wayne provided these graduation statistics, noting they are estimates until the degree conferral process completes in August.
• Total: 1,392
• Women: 754 (54.2%)
• Men: 638 (45.8%)
• Youngest student: 20
• Oldest student: 85
• 4.0 GPA: 66