On a day that would normally be full of relief and celebration, almost-graduate Jennifer Stewart’s cardboard graduation cap drooped over her eyes as she sprinted through the rain and mud toward Sverdrup Building. Mere moments earlier, School of Communications Dean Debbie Carpenter had told her class a tornado was headed straight toward their tent, and Stewart had bolted while other confused near-graduates faced the reality they might never walk across the stage.
Prior to the dramatic and dangerous events of May 2003, Webster University held its graduation at least partially outdoors each year, with the initial ceremonies taking place outside Eden Seminary. Former dean of Students Ted Hoef recounted occasional complaints about navigating the mud.
“Even if it didn’t rain . . . we just held our breath hoping somebody’s grandmother didn’t fall because of the soft ground,” he said.
Despite occasional rain-outs, Webster students largely enjoyed the process of graduating on the same campus they had spent the prior four years walking across.
But in 2003, they knew dangerous weather was coming. Large tents were set up across campus for the various commencement ceremonies, though a few of them were lucky enough to be scheduled indoors. Stewart stood on the grassy field next to Webster Groves High School, preparing to walk across the stage and listening to the student speaker. Carpenter interrupted him, however, and told everyone that they needed to take shelter immediately. Stewart ran to Sverdrup, but chaos took hold as everyone tried to escape the storm.
Hoef recounts a few students that were determined to cross the stage and receive their diploma. They realized the Arts and Sciences ceremony was still taking place in the gymnasium. The students bursted into the gym, dripping wet with drooping cardboard caps.
“They got in line with the other graduates . . . and gave their card to the dean of arts and sciences. He was reading off the names, chuckling and everybody applauded for them,” Hoef said.
While those students were lucky enough to get closure, many others like Stewart never got to walk across the stage.
“You can’t recreate that experience, it’s hard,” she said. “It just always felt unfinished. That has always stuck with me.”
Webster University commencement ceremonies have moved to different locations across the city many times, before being suspended in 2020 and 2021 due to the pandemic. But now, for the first time since the 2003 storm, graduation is returning to the Webster Groves campus.
The school is prioritizing safety, making sure there is a roof over all students’ heads. Ceremonies are set to take place in both the Loretto Hilton Center and Grant Gymnasium over the weekend of May 13. To keep crowd size down, students are allowed a maximum guest count of four, which has made students like graduating senior Jenna Dietl upset.
“One of my sisters isn’t even allowed to come, I mean that just doesn’t seem fair. I get that it’s to try to protect us from COVID, but not enforcing masks is going to expose us all anyway,” Dietl said.
Stewart, the rain-soaked graduate turned director of student engagement, is very accustomed to complaints.
“You can’t please everyone,” Stewart said “You’re always going to have somebody that’s complaining.”
She then mentioned the importance of weighing the complaints. After 2003, Webster started to prioritize safety over everything else.
After two years of canceled graduation ceremonies, students who graduated during the pandemic are being welcomed back to walk to finally get that sense of closure. Stewart encourages students to focus on the positives.
“I like it on campus better. Just like, this is where you went to school. This is where you did the work,” Stewart said. “This is what you want your family to see.”
Hoef echoed her sentiments.
“It’s symbolic,” He said “It will kind of feel like unfinished business if you don’t get to walk across the stage, and introduce your family to the friends you’ve made over the four years.”
One thing is for certain – Webster students hopefully won’t have to worry about getting blown away by a tornado ever again.