Graduation procession

Graduates process through campus on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

School’s out for summer at Whitman College.

Last weekend, the class of 2021 donned caps and gowns and crossed the stage in front of Memorial Building’s historic clock tower to receive their diplomas, a rite of passage that was once again restyled due to the pandemic. Seniors were able to gather in person while their guests watched via livestream, unlike last year’s all virtual ceremony. Yet the unique, socially distant and grads-only commencement marked the end of yet another unusual semester at Whitman.

Thankfully, there is cause for optimism about a return to relative normalcy right around the corner. The reason? Vaccines. While precautions remain in place this summer as the college continues to monitor the situation with regard to COVID-19, fall semester will almost certainly see a full return to in-person classes, normal occupancy on-campus living and dining, sports with spectators, concerts, plays, field trips and no more quarantine after travel. Mask requirements may also be eased in accordance with state recommendations.

“For more than a year now we have been making tough decisions to keep each other and the broader Walla Walla community safe,” said President Kathleen Murray in a message to the Whitman community last month. “Each of us has made countless sacrifices and has followed inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable protocols to get us where we are today. I can’t tell you how much I am looking forward to a campus that looks much more like what we were used to pre-pandemic.”

Starting this fall, Whitman students will be required to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination to attend, with medical and religious exemptions. Employees are encouraged to get vaccinated, too, and anyone who is still unvaccinated must complete regular COVID-19 screening and continue to follow masking and quarantine guidelines.

More than 70% of students, staff and faculty at Whitman are already fully vaccinated. Graduating seniors who showed proof of vaccination did not need to take a COVID-19 test to participate in commencement, and Whitties who are vaccinated will have access to facilities such as the library and fitness center this summer.

Emma Anderson, a junior majoring in biochemistry, biophysics and molecular biology, is one of the leaders of the Pre-Health Society. The student club worked to get the word out about local vaccination events through tabling, emails and social media.

“We started by compiling all of the information about vaccines in the last few large clinics at the fairgrounds and in different pharmacies,” she said. “I am proud to see that the information is being shared.”

Whitman hosted a vaccine clinic on campus in late April for students who wanted to get vaccinated by the end of the semester, before returning home to their families or starting summer internships. A number of students also received their shots at the fairgrounds once eligibility opened up to include young adults. Many members of the Whitman community have also volunteered at these clinics, an experience most said they found extra meaningful after long periods of careful isolation from friends and neighbors.

“My role as a volunteer was greeter/screener at the entrance, so I got to see everyone entering the Pavilion during my shifts,” said Susan Holme, director of off-campus studies. “In February it was mostly elderly members of the community who were being vaccinated, and it was so rewarding to see the looks of excitement and relief on people’s faces as they arrived.”

Antonia Keithahn, assistant director of disability support services, volunteered as a mobility aid. “The most gratifying aspect was engaging with a populace that I would otherwise most likely not interact with in my day to day life, and getting to hear people’s stories. It underlined to me how much we all have in common.”

As thoughts turn to summer and fall 2021 and embracing the end of the pandemic, we still have work to do to keep everybody safe. But we are well on our way.

For more information and the latest data on how Whitman is responding to the pandemic, visit the college’s COVID-19 dashboard at whitman.edu/covid-dashboard. The site is updated every week.

Gillian Frew is the media relations strategist at Whitman College.