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A Private Jet, A Flight Across State And A Race For COVID-19 Tests To Make Graduation

Colorado Mesa University tested all attending students, faculty and guests before its in-person commencement ceremonies. Of the 645 tests, 12 were positive, including two students. They were able to stream the graduation, instead.
Colorado Mesa University tested all attending students, faculty and guests before its in-person commencement ceremonies. Of the 645 tests, 12 were positive, including two students. They were able to stream the graduation, instead.

It's cold out at the regional airport in the small city of Grand Junction, Colorado, with darkness so thick you can't see the mesas just off the runway.Flood lights illuminate a sleek private jet, all 58 feet of it, and a group of faculty and staff from Colorado Mesa University walking its way.

"This is pretty surreal, to be honest with you," says CMU Vice President John Marshall. "I mean, I guess no more surreal than anything else this year, right?"

Marshall is one of the passengers accompanying 60 COVID-19 tests to a lab on the other side of the state. The clock is ticking.Each of these last-minute tests belongs to a graduate's family or friend. And Marshall says this fast flight will ensure the results come in time for the next day's two ceremonies.

"In some ways, it's sort of a joyful, crazy ending to a crazy year, right?" Marshall says.

Graduation is something most students dream about for years, but due to the pandemic countless colleges have had to cancel, postpone or move the milestone online this year. The University of Colorado Boulder, the largest in the state, recently announced all its commencement ceremonies will stay virtual through at least May.

But CMU has taken a different approach. Marshall and others decided graduating students could still walk, as long attendees at the ceremonies stayed socially distant and everyone wore masks. The school also decided to test every single graduate, faculty member and guest planning to be at Friday's ceremonies. Some of those people, however, were unable to get a test until the afternoon before the graduations, not enough time to normally get results in time.

That's where the private jet comes in.

Colorado Mesa University's John Marshall, Amy Bronson and Emma Leenerman accompanied 60 last-minute COVID-19 tests from Grand Junction to Loveland, where a lab got results in time for the next day's graduation ceremonies.
Stina Sieg / CPR News
Colorado Mesa University's John Marshall, Amy Bronson and Emma Leenerman accompanied 60 last-minute COVID-19 tests from Grand Junction to Loveland, where a lab got results in time for the next day's graduation ceremonies.

While it might sound like a drastic solution, Grand Junction is isolated — nearly 300 miles and one big mountain pass away from the testing facility in Loveland, outside of Denver.

With the box of COVID-19 tests secured on the jet, the CMU group buckles up. There are some giddy laughs as the plane accelerates for takeoff, and then the few lights from the community below disappear.

Through the small plane windows, the group can see snow rolling in.

"If we had to drive the tests tonight, I don't know that they would have got there," said Emma Leenerman, who coordinates CMU's testing program.

After about half an hour in the air, they land in Loveland. As they hand off the box of vials, everyone is excited, even the scientist about to get down to work on testing them.

The pilot, CMU instructor Erling Brabaek, is grinning in his Santa hat. He saved Christmas, someone jokes.

"Ah, no!" Brabaek happily counters, in his Danish accent. "No, we all saved Christmas."

That includes the man who donated the jet, Kevin Davis, who runs a local car dealership.

"I hope the students appreciate it," he says, adding he hopes they "go out and make a difference in the world."

Davis dropped out of high school decades ago, but eventually got 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 college.

"For sure, I am too. It's a big deal," he says. "It's pretty exciting."

After just a few hours, the testing is done. Of the 60 tests on the flight, all but three come back negative. For those who tested positive, the ceremony was made available to stream online.

The chilly air is charged with excitement the next morning for graduation, when a few hundred guests are spread out in a stadium that holds 8,000. They clap, cheer and occasionally blow air horns as each graduate receives a diploma and a gloved first bump from the school's president. The local health department has given the event the green light — as long as no one throws their cap up in the air. Officials think pawing through a bunch of caps lying on the ground could be a health risk.

After a short ceremony, 26-year-old graduate Linford Ocloo walks back to the stands and waves up at his mom.

Constance Garvie and her son, Linford Ocloo, were both elated that CMU was able to hold its graduation ceremonies in person. Ocloo plans to go on to future degrees and become a coach one day.
Stina Sieg / CPR News
Constance Garvie and her son, Linford Ocloo, were both elated that CMU was able to hold its graduation ceremonies in person. Ocloo plans to go on to future degrees and become a coach one day.

"I don't want to cry right now, but we've been through a lot," he says, tears filing his eyes. "Thank you, God!"

His mother, Constance Garvie, makes her way down to her son. Originally from Ghana, she beams about his accomplishment.

"I'm really, really happy. It's a long journey," she said. "And hey, it's been a tough year, but at the end of the year, we still happy."

And they're relieved to be sharing this moment together — in person.

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