`Pomp and Circumstance' yields to `All By Myself'

Graduation: Western Maryland College has a mini-commencement for an athlete who will miss the ceremony for track championships.

May 22, 2001|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SUN STAFF

Jamie Falcone is in a class by herself.

Literally.

Yesterday, the Western Maryland College senior donned a black cap and crepe gown and collected her diploma as her family and friends looked on, beaming. Unlike most commencements, the ceremony contained no boring, longwinded speeches, no "Pomp and Circumstance," no directives to "Hold your applause until the end," and no bubble-blowing, beach ball-bouncing fellow graduates with "Hi Mom" lettered on their mortarboards

That's because there were no fellow graduates.

"This is awesome. I feel really honored," the 21- year-old Glen Burnie resident said of her private commencement, arranged because of a scheduling conflict. The day her classmates will graduate, she is scheduled to compete in the NCAA track championships.

This is the season of graduations, cattle calls of college and high school students in caps and gowns, some in classes so large they'll do just about anything to stand out from the crowd. This week alone, about 15 college commencements will take place in the metropolitan Baltimore area. Some, such as the commencement at the University of Maryland College Park, feature as many as 4,900 graduates.

Of all the graduations this week, Falcone's is undoubtedly the smallest.

"All eyes are on me," the sociology major declared.

Western Maryland, like most colleges, doesn't usually confer single degrees in full ceremonies involving the college president, provost and faculty marshal dressed in full academic regalia. The graduation for one, an event college President Joan Develin Coley deemed "extraordinary," came about as the result of the scheduling conflict.

Saturday, when the college's estimated 820 undergraduates and graduate students are scheduled to march 36 feet across the commencement stage to collect their degrees, Falcone will be sprinting in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 4x100-meter relay at the NCAA Division III Track Championships in Decatur, Ill.

It was August when Falcone learned that her third trip to nationals and the final meet of her track career conflicted with the culmination of her college career. She was crushed.

Her coach, Douglas Renner, told her not to worry. "We'll figure something out," he said.

Falcone, who holds 11 school track records and is ranked second in the country in the 100-meter dash with a time of 11.9 seconds, considered skipping the championships to go to graduation.

"I know how much my parents have sacrificed to get me here," said Falcone, who is the first person in her family to graduate from college and plans a career in retail management. "Academics come first."

Last month, when Renner put another runner in Falcone's leg of the relay to prepare the team for nationals, Falcone hated sitting on the bench. She reconsidered going to the track meet and ditching graduation.

"I should be running that leg," Falcone told herself. "I can't do this."

She called home crying. "Would it be OK if I didn't go to graduation?" she asked.

Her mother said no.

"I totally had a fit," said Angela Falcone, 52. "We didn't pay $24,000 a year so that she could get her diploma in the mail."

Still, neither of her parents wanted Falcone to miss nationals either.

James M. Smith, the college's athletic director, had arranged small commencement ceremonies for students competing in NCAA lacrosse finals when he worked at Loyola College in Baltimore. He floated the idea of having a similar event for Falcone and her family.

They loved it.

"This is our reward for all of our hard work," said Angela Falcone, who works as a preschool teacher. "I wanted the best of both worlds because she's really accomplished so much."

"Jamie deserves this," said Carol Fritz, associate director of athletics at the college. "Her parents do, too."

Jamie Falcone bought her cap and gown Thursday at the school bookstore. "I get to be in two places at one time," she said happily.

Wallace Renfro, a spokesman for the Indianapolis-based NCAA, said his organization doesn't track how many of the 44,000 students who compete every year in NCAA championships must skip graduation to do so.

Championship dates are often set more than a year in advance, before many colleges set their dates for commencement, he said. "There are 976 institutions that belong to the NCAA," Renfro said. "Trying to meet the graduation calendars for 976 institutions has the potential to be overwhelming."

Yesterday's ceremony at Western Maryland lacked some of the hallmarks of a more traditional commencement at the school. Falcone and her family didn't get to hear the college choir sing "I Believe I Can Fly," which they will perform at Saturday's commencement. Nor did she participate in a WMC tradition of ringing the college's bell, which all graduates do as they progress across campus to the Gill Center for commencement exercises.

Still, graduating alone has its advantages.

The ceremony, held in a student lounge, lasted six minutes, not two hours.

"If I had been a second later I would have missed it," Falcone's friend and fellow Western Maryland senior Bianca Locke-Wilson said at a punch and cookie reception for the graduate after the ceremony.

The brief comments by Coley and Provost H. Samuel Case focused exclusively on the lone graduate and her accomplishments.

"This is very special," said Coley, who added that she's not worried that Falcone's solo graduation will set any sort of a precedent at the school. "Jamie, it's an honor to celebrate you today."

And the 25 people gathered for Falcone didn't have to crane their necks to search for their graduate in the sea of black gowns. Falcone sat in front, behind the podium, in full view of her father's video camera inches away.

"Usually they're boring, but this one wasn't," said Jamie Falcone's grandmother, Eileen Forgette, 66, who lives in Edgewater. "It was sweet and short. It was lovely."

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