The 306 members of Westmont College’s class of 2021 rank among the most determined and resilient college graduates in our nation’s history.
“We’re so proud of these graduates, who’ve endured the historic California Thomas Fire, the tragic Montecito mudslide, more than five evacuations and the year-long pandemic,” says President Gayle D. Beebe. “They’ve overcome unbelievable challenges and catastrophic events to emerge stronger than ever. They developed a resilience that was so striking and it provided them the grit and endurance to lead the campus through the pandemic. They’re the reason we’ve remained living and learning safely in person all year. They knew how important it was to abide by safety protocols and restrictions to help each other and our Santa Barbara community. They’re so prepared and ready to lead and serve on the frontlines in all spheres of society throughout the world.”
Four months into their first semester, smoke from the Thomas Fire — and its relentless movement toward Montecito — forced the college to evacuate in December. A few weeks later, after students had returned for the spring semester, deadly mudflows struck the region in January after a rare, once-in-200-year storm hit the Montecito mountains. Despite the campus being untouched by the fires and mudslides, Westmont had to evacuate again due to widespread damage that compromised the water supply on campus. Then, halfway through the spring semester of their junior year, students left again when the pandemic shut down campus and nearly everything in the world. Despite the setback, students returned to campus in September 2020 for their senior year, living safely on campus and participating in classes on Zoom or outside under large tents.
Caylie Cox, who graduates with a degree in English, says the last four years have taught her what it means to develop resilience and grit. “My class and I can claim one achievement: We’ve kept going,” she says. “Even when the world was literally falling apart around us, we have stuck together. We’ve built friendships, kept each other safe and embraced new ideas. I’ve seen my classmates grow mentally, emotionally and spiritually even in the midst of incredibly challenging times of life and death all around us. I couldn’t be prouder of my class. We are, without a doubt, resilient.”
The class of 2021 will walk across the stage to celebrate Commencement in person on Saturday, May 8, at 9:30 a.m. at Thorrington Field in a special, socially distanced layout. Only two guests per graduate may attend; the ceremony is closed to the general public. Families and friends may watch a professional livestream of the event at westmont.edu/commencement.
Of the 306 students who will participate in Commencement, 124 will earn honors. The graduating class includes two veterans who served in the military before attending Westmont: Esteban Garcia Mares and Steven Carmona.
Four students graduate with triple majors: Kimberlee Liang Gong, Zion Shih, Chisondi Simba Warioba and Logan G. Hodgson.
Sandra Richter, Westmont’s Robert H. Gundry professor of biblical studies, delivers the address. Beebe presents the Westmont Medal to Ron Werft, president and CEO of Cottage Health, Westmont’s partner for its new Accelerated Bachelor of Science in Nursing program that launches in spring 2022 pending approval from the California Board of Registered Nursing.
“The class of 2021 has, literally, seen fire, flood, and plague — and they are still here — ramping up to cross one of the most important thresholds of their lives,” Richter says. “They are stronger, more focused, and more mature than when they came. And we the faculty and staff and administration of Westmont College could not be prouder of this group of women and men who are launching out from our campus to change the world.”
Richter, who is writing a commentary on Deuteronomy while on sabbatical, will speak about “When You Cross the Jordan: Some Thoughts on Liminal Space.” Her most recent book, “Stewards of Eden: What Scripture Says about the Environment and Why It Matters,” has won numerous awards from Christian publishers and organizations. A veteran of leading student groups in archaeological excavation and historical geography classes in Israel, she earned a doctorate in Hebrew Bible from Harvard University.
“Any student who is graduating from Westmont with this class has experienced an extraordinary number of natural and pandemic-related circumstances,” says Edee Schulze, Westmont vice president for student life. “Making it to this point testifies to their grit and resilience. For those who’ve had an unusually difficult time and are battling to get to the finish line, we applaud your perseverance and courage.”
Last September, Jason Tavarez, director of institutional resilience, oversaw efforts that resulted in Westmont being one of the few schools in California to safely offer outdoor, in-person classes. Westmont has administered more than 8,900 COVID-19 tests, which resulted in a staggeringly low 1.1 percent positivity rate.
“The class of 2021’s resilience makes them able to handle pretty much any adversity and the most employable class in the country as they can deal with any situation that arises before them,” Tavarez says. “If fires, floods and a global pandemic can’t stop them, truly nothing will.”
Werft is a trustee of the American Hospital Association Board, which has ultimate authority for the governance and management of its direction and finances. He is past chair of the California Hospital Association and Hospital Association of Southern California and serves on the board of Vizient West Coast. He won the 2013 CHA Award of Merit for outstanding contribution to the California health care community. He earned a master’s in hospital and health care administration from the University of Minnesota.