An Ohio Northern University graduate with a service dog she trained.

On Sunday, May 23, one year after graduating, nearly 200 students from Ohio Northern University’s class of 2020 formally celebrated their achievement with in-person commencement ceremonies. The Raabe College of Pharmacy, Smull College of Engineering, Dicke College of Business and Getty College of Arts and Sciences re-conferred degrees to alumni who concluded their studies remotely not long after the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Along with pandemic-related hardships, Sunday’s speakers described how other challenges have shaped them, and the enduring lessons they’ve learned about how to navigate life’s ups and downs.

Hannah Smith, BSBA ’20, a Cincinnati, Ohio native who earned a bachelor’s degree in administration, said she felt her late grandmother’s presence while touring the campus as a prospective student. Because of the faculty, staff and student connections she made during her undergraduate days, which reflected others’ compassion, humanity and willingness to the extra mile to help her when she was in need, “ONU was as close to her as I could get here on earth,” she said.

In that spirit, Smith urged her former classmates to create their own path while serving others. “Take the time to sit with the broken” she said.

Megan Loos, BSME ’20, who earned her degree in mechanical engineering, drew upon her college experience as a trainer for 4 Paws for Ability to emphasize her importance of cultivating community and finding one’s calling. 4 Paws for Ability provides service dogs to people, particularly children, with disabilities. Loos, a Marysville, Ohio native who now works for Marathon Petroleum Corporation as a project engineer, trained eight service dogs during her time at ONU. “I loved each dog I trained… knowing all the while they weren’t mine to keep,” she explained. “I gave a piece of my heart to each dog,” who then gave theirs to the children they were placed with, she said.

After graduation, Loos became immersed in work and set service dog training aside but she recently returned to volunteerism. The activity has encouraged her to find supportive communities on her own that nurture her interests outside of her job. She encouraged her peers to do the same. “It is all too easy to lose sight of who we are and what we want to do in life,” she said.

Mary Komandt, PharmD ’20, from Delmont, Pennsylvania, had a similar message during her commencement speech. “You cannot take care of others if you are not taking care of yourself,” she pointed out while asking those in the audience to “reflect on the human aspects of our job and our journey.”

Komandt, who is wrapping up a first-year residency at Johns Hopkins Home Care Group in Baltimore, Maryland, said that during a psychology rotation for her pharmacy degree, she “was able to embracing the discomfort of living in gray areas” where “what works for one person might not work for someone else.” “Living in the land of gray” requires “intentionally seeking out relationships” and being able to professionally help others in caring and flexible ways.

“I believe empathy is an undervalued skill,” she said.

Kenny Barga, PharmD ’20, who is finishing a residency at Ohio Health Riverside Methodist Hospital, said it was a testament to Ohio Northern’s inclusivity and welcoming nature that so many alumni showed up for Sunday’s commencement ceremonies. Barga, who described his freshman self as “just a kid from a small town in the middle-of-nowhere Ohio, spoke about “the importance of family” from academic and personal perspectives. The Burkettsville, Ohio native described how his pharmacy professors, classmates and Heterick Memorial Library staff embraced him and encouraged him to succeed. His mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in December 2020, would’ve enjoyed seeing him at commencement, he surmised.

ONU administrators emphasized the unique academic situation that Barga and others faced during their last semester.

“What a year to start your career,” said Raabe College of Pharmacy Dean Steve Martin, PharmD. The pandemic, he said, has “been a call to action for our profession to meet the needs of our society. I know many of you were directly involved in saving the lives of those with coronavirus,” he said.

ONU President Dan DiBiasio pointed out the pandemic has “caused changes that have ranged from the inconvenient to the inconsolable,” but that students “have shown grit and resilience.”

“We can mark this day as the capstone event of the year like no other,” DiBiasio said.