GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — Many seniors across the country expected to graduate this weekend, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they had to change their plans. One Gastonia mom made sure her daughter will never forget what should have been her graduation day.
Lauren Jerzak was supposed to graduate from Western Carolina University on Saturday. While the actual commencement ceremony was rescheduled for December, her mom Rachael Jerzak wanted to make the end of her senior year special.
All she wanted, Rachael said, was for her daughter to have the feeling of walking across the stage.
Last week, Rachael told Lauren she wanted to mark her graduation day by taking special graduation photos. When Lauren arrived where she thought they were taking photos, she saw that her mom brought along her lifelong best friend Jade Graham — Lauren thought that was the big surprise.
Rachael then got them to sit in the hatchback of her vehicle, then pulled up to the scene — a pop-up graduation made a reality with a stage, lawn chairs and tailgates for family friends to watch, and two special seats for the graduates of honor.
The unofficial graduation ceremony included a rendition of Pomp & Circumstance, an honorary commencement speech, a scripture reading, and a song, all put together by family friends.
“As much that it was a pop-up, I think she’ll remember it for a lifetime," Rachael said.
She says she couldn't have made it happen without family friends willing to help pull it together at the drop of a hat.
“I was just astonished, I couldn’t have done it at all, it’s good to have friends that you have that are like family," Rachael said. "All you have to do is say we need to make the day special for Lauren and they all just do it.”
Lauren was shocked and happy, her mother says, and was able to celebrate the day with loved ones. They kept it safe, giving everyone a mask and keeping their distance as much as possible.
“Of course I didn’t make it through the day without crying several times, once when I was thanking them, once when I was talking about how they’ve all known her since the day she was born, and of course at the end," Rachael said. "I just couldn’t hold it together, it was great.”
Lauren said all her mother wanted for Mother's Day was for her daughter to graduate, but Lauren had one last grade she was waiting for to make it all official.
"I received that grade this morning, and gave her the gift of me graduating for Mother's Day," Lauren said.
As college and high school seniors alike watch their would-be graduation date pass, Rachael encourages parents and students alike to find ways to make it special.
“I hope folks celebrate, even though they can’t walk the stage," Rachael said. "On a smaller scale, just make sure they celebrate one another and the accomplishments the best you can."