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Will Ostendorf, a University of Colorado Boulder graduate who has completed his master’s degree, on campus Friday. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Graduating from college in the middle of a pandemic is weird.

That’s the first word University of Colorado Boulder graduate Olivia Gardner uses to describe the end of her final college semester. It’s very, very weird.

“I finished school two weeks ago but it still doesn’t feel like I’ve graduated,” she said. “We’re having these online ceremonies but it doesn’t feel like the closure has happened because we left campus so abruptly and didn’t have time to celebrate and say goodbye to our professors and friends.”

After graduation, Gardner was planning to dive into the world of nonprofit organizations and pursue her passion for reforming the criminal justice system.

But then coronavirus hit, and all of the fellowships and programs she applied for were put on pause.

“People don’t know what the end of the year is going to look like,” she said. “Everything is up in the air right now.”

So Gardner changed course. She’s taking her double major in ethnic studies and women and gender studies and teaming up with four other people — including fellow 2020 graduate Cam Perdido — to launch an online platform that helps teachers create more equitable classrooms and address the school-to-prison pipeline.

Like Gardner, more than 6,500 CU Boulder students graduating this weekend are walking into a future made even more uncertain by the ongoing pandemic.

“It’s scary and terrifying but at the same time hopeful,” Gardner said. “I just want to get to the other side so we can see what’s there.”

Gardner said the new platform, Transformative Teach, feels particularly necessary because of the coronavirus.

“All of these inequities that existed before are being exacerbated, and it emphasizes how much work has to be done,” she said. “It’s a place of despair but also hope.”

Transformative Teach aims to help teachers create classroom environments where all students can thrive and to reduce the number of students who are sent out of the classroom and disciplined inequitably. A pilot program in June will focus on the perpetuation and roots of the school-to-prison pipeline.

Gardner’s most valuable experience at CU Boulder is also what helped her and Perdido create Transformative Teach.

Both participated in the two-year INVST Community Leadership Program, which combines classes and summer programs to help students learn about environmental and social issues.

Transformative Teach was created through a project Perdido and Gardner worked on during their second year of INVST.

“INVST as a whole was really valuable because within that program I learned so many different tools and skills that I carried with me to the work I was doing outside INVST,” Gardner said.

CU Boulder graduate Will Ostendorf is staying in the classroom after he graduates with a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with an emphasis in literacy.

As a fifth-grade teacher at Coal Creek Elementary School in Louisville, Ostendorf has experienced the pandemic as both a teacher and student.

“It’s been a challenge adapting to teaching and learning in this new way,” he said. “I went into the profession because I love the kids and teaching over a computer screen is not the same thing. I miss the connection we have with them.”

Like Gardner, Ostendorf said graduating in a pandemic is a strange experience.

“In some ways it’s anticlimactic that you work super hard and there’s not this big celebration,” he said.

One of Ostendorf’s favorite experiences at CU Boulder is also one that’s come in handy as a teacher suddenly teaching all classes online.

Ostendorf took a digital media and literacy lab that taught him how to use digital media in the classroom to increase student engagement.

“I learned in that class the value of technology and what it can bring to the classroom, the engagement and the excitement kids have around technology,” he said. “It’s pretty amazing how applicable that has been to what we’re doing.”

Students created comics and used green screens to explain their learning — both of which Ostendorf has used with his students at Coal Creek.

“Online teaching has been a challenge but it’s also been pretty amazing to see how kids have the opportunity to take responsible risks in learning. It’s been amazing to see their independence,” he said.

Normally, Ostendorf said he would host a backyard barbecue to celebrate graduation. Now, he’s planning to celebrate virtually and looking forward to being able to celebrate in person in the future.

“It’s a little bit sad, but at the same time it’s still a great achievement and something I’m very proud of,” he said.

Olivia Gardner and Cam Perdido at a graduation ceremony for CU Boulder’s INVST Community Studies program in 2019. Gardner and Perdido, who both completed the two-year INVST program, are graduating this weekend and launching an online platform to help teachers address the school-to-prison pipeline.(Courtesy Photo)

 

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