When Gina Thurman learned a few months ago that spring commencement at Augusta University had to be postponed and the College of Nursing pinning ceremony was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic, she was in tears.
For more than 20 years, Thurman, associate dean of students and director of student advocacy at Augusta University, has proudly led graduates out onto the floor during commencement.
“Twice a year, for about two decades, I’ve helped with graduation and I still tear up each and every time,” Thurman said, laughing. “Just seeing everybody’s family so excited and happy is overwhelming.”
But this year’s spring commencement was going to be particularly emotional for Thurman and her family.
“My daughter, Ashley, is graduating with a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Augusta University. My husband and I are both two-time alums, so she was excited to be a legacy graduate and get a legacy cord,” Gina Thurman said. “The truth is, I was probably more disappointed than she was that graduation was postponed because I was so looking forward to being down on the floor with her. In fact, when we found out graduation had been postponed, I think I cried more than she did.”
Ashley Thurman, who has already accepted a nursing position at the Children’s Hospital of Georgia, couldn’t believe the news when she heard there would not be an in-person commencement this spring.
“I thought it was just a rumor, but then we saw the official announcement,” Ashley Thurman said. “For me, it’s hard because I have been in school for five years now. This has been a really long chapter in my life and I was looking forward to finally walking across the stage. But, at the same time, being a nurse, I understood the impact that having a ceremony like this could have on our community during this pandemic. So, I understood why they made the decision that they had to make.”
Despite the family’s disappointment over not being able to participate in an in-person commencement this spring, Gina and Robert Thurman were still determined to celebrate their daughter’s accomplishments.
“We are planning our own graduation ceremony with her on Saturday, May 23,” Gina Thurman said. “We’re going to have it outside so people can sit separately and it’ll just be a small group of friends and family. Maybe 20 people or so.”
The Thurman family has teamed with close friends, Heather and Dip Metress, to plan the ceremony.
Heather Metress is the registrar at Augusta University, while Dip Metress is the longtime Augusta University men’s basketball coach.
“We are having it at Heather Metress’s house because they have a back patio that resembles a stage,” Gina Thurman said. “Heather and I are planning to wear our regalia and present Ashley. And we want to follow the official program as much as possible, so that it feels like a real ceremony for her.”
Ashley Thurman was truly touched when she heard that her parents and the Metress family were planning a graduation ceremony.
“I think of Heather and Dip Metress as more of my aunt and uncle because we always celebrate holidays together,” Ashley Thurman said. “So, around Easter, we were talking to Heather and Dip and we kind of joked about having a ceremony. We had this whole elaborate idea and then I realized that we could actually do it, because everyone is super dedicated and would actually put forth the effort to make it happen.”
After all, both Gina Thurman and Heather Metress know the graduation ceremony like “the back of their hand,” Ashley Thurman said.
“I thought it would be really fun to actually have a ceremony,” Ashley Thurman said. “So, I said, ‘Why not have a few people that know what they’re doing plan the ceremony, and have fun with it.’ And I wanted it to include the people that I care about.”
By planning this small graduation ceremony for her daughter, Gina Thurman said it has helped ease her family’s disappointment over the postponement of this spring’s ceremony.
“It’s kind of exciting,” Gina Thurman said. “She got her nursing pin the other day, so my husband is going to put her nursing pin on her as part of the ceremony. We’re trying to come up with a role for everybody. We may even have Dip be the graduation speaker, because he’s a coach and gives motivational speeches a lot.”
Robert Thurman said he simply wants the ceremony to honor his daughter’s achievement and let the family enjoy a little fun during this difficult time.
“We want to give Ashley something special, but we also want it to be safe at the same time,” he said. “We will definitely respect the rules and regulations that the governor has laid out and we will follow them accordingly.”
In anticipation of the mock ceremony, Ashley Thurman said she has already tried on her robe and is ready to celebrate her accomplishments with her family and small group of friends.
“When I got my robe, I walked into my parents’ room and showed them because I haven’t worn anything like that since high school,” she said. “And it was weird that I finally got it because I felt like this day would never come.”
Graduating from college is something that should be celebrated, Gina Thurman said.
“My daughter has worked extremely hard and she is graduating with honors,” Gina Thurman proudly said. “She is cum laude, so she’s getting her honors’ cord and she’s president of the Student Nursing Association, so she’s got a cord for that as well. And, then of course, she’ll get her legacy cord, and I’ll get my legacy pin from the alumni association. That all means a great deal to our family.”
After all, Robert Thurman received his bachelor’s degree in business and management in 1986 from Augusta College and returned to get an additional degree in finance in 1996. Gina Thurman received a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing in 1989 and went back to get her master’s degree in counseling in 1998.
“Right after I got my bachelor’s degree in 1989, I started working at the university,” Gina Thurman said. “So, I’ve been at the school for 30 years and, for me personally, this university is part of my family.”
Ashely Thurman said she is truly blessed to have such a loving family and caring friends.
“You hear all the time people say, ‘Actions speak louder than words,’” she said. “Well, this ceremony is really special to me because it makes me see how much my parents really do love me and want to give me the experience that was taken away because of the COVID-19 situation. It means the world to me.”