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On June 26, 2021, Columbia College-Denver hosted its 44th commencement ceremony. Despite the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic during the 2020-21 school year, the location was still able to host the major occasion in-person, unlike so many other events over the past year.

Graduates and virtual attendees across the world were truly grateful to enjoy a “normal” commencement ceremony. In fact, the Facebook Live event of the celebration saw more than 2,300 views and more than 200 interactions by its audience.

Jim McNally, location director at Columbia College-Denver, reflected on the impact of the in-person commencement ceremony at that time.

Director McNally and Nicole Palmero
Director McNally and Nicole Palmero

“To say that our staff, faculty, and student body were overjoyed to hold our annual commencement ceremony is a huge understatement,” said McNally. “Throughout the pandemic, due to provision in the state of Colorado, we were able to remain working at the location assisting both our domestic and international students’ transition to a virtual class delivery format. More than 50 percent of our student body is comprised of international students. They couldn’t travel to visit family during 2020 and many dealt with isolation, loneliness, home sickness and suffered financial hardship.”

McNally noted that many individuals sacrificed and pooled family resources to fund their higher-education aspirations. Since many are first generation college graduates, it was incredibly important to celebrate their accomplishments. “To be the first Columbia College nationwide location in the country to hold a ceremony in 2021 for both the classes of 2020 and 2021 was not only exciting but extremely meaningful to our students and their families,” he said.

Due to strict travel restrictions, family members of the international students couldn’t obtain visas to travel to Denver for the in-person ceremony. More than ever, it was vital to give those individuals the opportunity to view the event virtually.

“We as a staff were thrilled to be able to live stream the event, even with some technical challenges,” said McNally. “To have the viewership and online interaction like we did was extremely fulfilling. To livestream the event was critical to us, because it was important to the students and their families. Personally, I loved the camera placement so that the student’s families and friends were able to vividly witness the moment they received their degree. Seeing the students waving to the camera and saying stuff like ‘Hi Mom!’ was pretty cool.”

One of the graduates in attendance at the Denver ceremony was Nicole Palmero ’21. She was joined by her mother, Jennifer Mascarella ’20. Dating back to his tenure with the college’s location in Crystal Lake, Illinois, McNally has built a unique friendship with the two graduates.

Jennifer earned her Bachelor of Science in Management degree from CC, and later encouraged her daughter to attend the college’s location in Denver after learning McNally had become its newest director.

“At the Crystal Lake location, Jim created a welcoming and supportive environment for both students and staff,” said Mascarella. “Nicole had been living in Denver since 2011 and had previously intermittently attended a state school and area community college. Sensing her frustration with them and based on my own positive experiences, I routinely encouraged Nicole to attend Columbia College.”

Behind her mother’s recommendation and personal connection with McNally, Nicole officially enrolled to CC-Denver in Fall 2017. Fast forward to Spring 2021, she completed the nontraditional in-person commencement ceremony with a bachelor’s degree in management and Magna Cum Laude honors.

“My three years working as assistant director in Crystal Lake was a very transformative time of growth and development for myself,” said McNally. “Due to the credibility of that location, which provides excellent customer service, advising, and exemplary instruction, it created confidence for Jennifer to recommend her daughter to attend in Denver. This story exemplifies how the college’s team works together to provide high-touch, personal attention to students so they can achieve their academic goals.”

Both Jennifer and Nicole now proudly hold degrees from Columbia College and credit McNally and his hard-working faculty and staff for their success in higher education.

“At my previous schools, I felt like I was just another number in their student body,” said Palmero. “I didn’t feel connected to the school or that they cared about my education. After transferring to Columbia College, they showed they really cared and had online availability which was great since I worked the night shift at my job. “Seeing my Mom attend and graduate with such success from CC was extremely emotional for me. I can’t fully explain how proud I am of her,” Palmero added. “She set the bar high in our family and I wanted to follow in her success.”

Jennifer Mascarella and Nicole Palmero