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From left, University of Colorado Boulder graduates Kelly Bergstrom, Gracie Sapp and Kelly Baillie sign a banner for the class of 2021 at A Night on Norlin on Sept. 17, 2021. The event was for 2020 and 2021 graduates who didn’t have in-person commencement ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Katie Langford / Staff Writer)
From left, University of Colorado Boulder graduates Kelly Bergstrom, Gracie Sapp and Kelly Baillie sign a banner for the class of 2021 at A Night on Norlin on Sept. 17, 2021. The event was for 2020 and 2021 graduates who didn’t have in-person commencement ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Katie Langford / Staff Writer)
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Hundreds of University of Colorado Boulder alumni celebrated graduation for the first time in person Friday at “A Night on Norlin,” an event for 2020 and 2021 graduates to make memories stolen by the coronavirus pandemic.

CU Boulder did not hold in-person commencement ceremonies in 2020 or 2021 because of the pandemic, though the campus held virtual ceremonies both years as well as some in-person student celebrations in 2021.

The university’s alumni association gave out 800 event tickets before Friday and had a steady stream of walk-ups throughout the evening, said program manager Sara Abdulla.

University of Colorado Boulder 2020 graduate Eriana Henderson, right, enjoys macaroni and cheese with mentor Alexis Williams at A Night on Norlin on Sept. 17, 2021. The event was for 2020 and 2021 graduates who didn’t have in-person commencement ceremonies because of the coronavirus pandemic. (Katie Langford / Staff Writer)

May 2020 graduate Eriana Henderson was excited for the chance to celebrate her graduation in person for the first time. Graduating during a pandemic sucked, she said.

“You feel like you did everything right and got no reward,” she said. “I wanted to come because we never got something just for us, and I feel like 2020 grads especially are the forgotten class.”

Finishing college at the beginning of the pandemic also changed what Henderson wanted to do with her life, she said.

She’s now a graduate student at CU Boulder, pursuing a master’s degree in organizational leadership, and is a post-graduate intern in diversity, equity and inclusion in the athletic department.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, so I think the pandemic helped me figure out what my true passion was,” she said. “I think I shied away from it because I didn’t want to be the Black woman doing diversity work, but it’s something I’m passionate about, and they need people who are passionate about doing the work for the change to actually happen.”

Not having an in-person commencement is also motivating her to finish graduate school, Henderson said.

“I had moments I wanted to quit, but then I think that my family never got to see me graduate college, so hopefully this is the time they’ll be able to come and celebrate with me,” she said.

May 2020 graduate James Paterson made the trip back from California because it was a good excuse to come back to Boulder.

Paterson’s post-college life was also upended by the pandemic when three job offers were rescinded. But he also considers it a blessing in disguise, because it gave him experience working in finance and helped him realize he wants to work in real estate.

“It forced me out of here, and one thing led to another, and now I know what I want to do,” he said.

May 2020 graduate Matthew Lay ended up job searching for a year after graduation and is now working in cybersecurity in Broomfield. Back when in-person graduation was canceled, he thought it would take place the following year.

“Everyone thought COVID was a yearlong thing that would go away, but it obviously didn’t,” he said.

Lay said he’s thankful for the “unintentional time off” to be able to figure out what he wanted to do.

The inspiration for A Night on Norlin came from 2020 and 2021 graduates who helped plan the event, Abdulla said.

“One of the things that stood out to them is that no one really does anything on Norlin, and it’s this iconic spot at CU with this view,” she said. “It’s awesome to be celebrating with the classes that really didn’t get the chance to do these traditions that we’ve always done.”