Last Friday night, it was cold in the small Grand Junction airport and it was so dark that You couldn't see the towering plateaus beyond the walkway. Flood lights illuminated a sleek 58-foot plane and a group from the University of Colorado Mesa walking toward it.
"To be honest, this is pretty surreal," said CMU Vice President John Marshall. "I mean, I guess no more surreal than anything else this year, right?"
Just hours earlier, 60 people, friends and family of future graduates, were last tested for COVID-19 . minute hoping to attend graduation the next day. However, for that to be possible, those tests had to be boarded on this plane. Marshall was one of the passengers accompanying the precious cargo to a laboratory on the other side of the state, clock ticking. Marshall explained that this fast flight should ensure that the results arrive in time for the two ceremonies the next day. But first they had to get to Loveland.
"In a way, it's kind of a crazy happy ending to a crazy year, right?" he said, getting on the plane.
Graduation is something that most students dream of for years, but due to the pandemic, countless universities have had to cancel, postpone or change online ceremonies this year. The University of Colorado Boulder, the largest university in the state, recently announced that all its beginnings will remain virtual until at least May.
But CMU took a different approach. Marshall and others decided that all attendees could walk with their families present, as long as the guests and graduates were socially distant and wore masks. The school also decided to screen all graduates, faculty, and guests who plan to be at the two ceremonies on Friday. Some of these individuals, however, were unable to obtain an exam until the afternoon before graduation, so there was usually not enough time to obtain the results.
That's where the private jet comes in.
While it may seem like a drastic solution, Grand Junction is isolated, nearly 300 miles and a large mountain pass from the Loveland test facility.
With the COVID-19 test box secured on the plane, the CMU crew buckled up. There was some giddy laughter as the plane sped for takeoff, and then the few lights from the community below disappeared.
At one point during the flight, the group looked out the windows and saw snow coming in.
"If we had to conduct the tests tonight, I don't know if they would have gotten there," said Emma Leenerman, who coordinates the CMU testing program.
After only half an hour in the air, the plane, its passengers and the tests landed in Loveland. When the box of vials was delivered, everyone was excited, including the Warrior Diagnostics scientist about to get down to business testing them.
The pilot, CMU instructor Erling Brabaek, smiled with his Santa hat. He saved Christmas, someone joked.
"Oh no!" Brabaek replied cheerfully, with his Danish accent. "No, we all saved Christmas."
That includes the man who donated the jet, Kevin Davis, with Western Slope Auto, a local auto dealership.
"I hope the students appreciate it," he said, adding that he hopes they "go out and make a difference in the world."
Davis dropped out of high school decades ago, but eventually earned his business degree from CMU. It means a lot to him that a large portion of these students are the first in their families to graduate from university.
"Sure I am too. It's a big problem," he said. "It's quite exciting."
After a few hours, the tests were done. Of the 60 tests on the flight, all but three were negative. For those who tested positive, the ceremony was available to stream online.
'I don't want to cry right now, but we've been through a lot'
The cold air was charged with excitement the next morning for graduation, when a few hundred guests spread out in a stadium It has capacity for 8,000. They clapped, clapped, and occasionally honked their horns as each graduate received a diploma and a gloved first hit from the school president. The local health department gave the green light to the event, as long as no one threw their cap in the air. The officials thought that passing through a pile of caps thrown on the ground could be a health risk.
After a brief ceremony, Linford Ocloo, a 26-year-old graduate, returned to the stands and waved to his mother.
"I don't want to cry right now, but we've been through a lot," she said, tears in her eyes. "Thank you, God!"
His mother, Constance Garvie, soon turned to her son. Originally from Ghana, she rejoices in her achievement.
"I'm very, very happy. It's a long journey," he said. "And hey, it's been a difficult year, but at the end of the year, we're still happy."
The graduates began to leave the stadium and into the parking lot, where a vintage truck greeted them with a sign on their bed congratulating the class of 2020. Many stopped to take pictures.
After a man and woman in their early 20s smiled at open cell phones, the man knelt down and presented a ring. Through tears, she said yes. Minutes later, Celeste Tovar, recently engaged, tried to describe what she felt.
"I-I, a lot of things," he said, wiping his eyes. “I'm crying and laughing and it doesn't feel real!”
Her new fiancé, Blair Kratzer, admitted he was a bit nervous beforehand, especially during the ceremony.
"The whole time, it was in the back of my head," he laughed. “I was like, 'Today I'm going to get a diploma! I'm going to propose! ""
If graduation had been canceled, as many have done this year, Kratzer would have discovered something else.
"Make a Zoom proposal or something like that," he joked.
But he and his future wife said they felt lucky to be there with their families, celebrating two monumental milestones, in person.