From car caravans to stadium ceremonies with socially distanced seating, this year’s California college graduations were unlike any before, as campuses attempted to balance safety with celebration amid a still-simmering pandemic.

In some cases, commencement plans were the result of hard-fought debates between students and administrators about how much in-person contact to allow. But as caps were tossed and confetti rained down, graduates from the class of 2021 and those from 2020 — who missed out on celebrating last year — said they were just happy for the chance to honor their achievements after a challenging 15 months.

“This is really nice closure,” said Riki Eijima, a kinesiology major at Occidental College.

Photographers from the CalMatters College Journalism Network captured some of those moments of catharsis at graduations across the state.

Riki Eijima, a kinesiology major from Occidental College, smiles in excitement after a commencement ceremony was held for the class of 2020 at Occidental College, on June 12, 2021. “I’m glad we got to say goodbye to friends, professors and staff,” Eijima said. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Families of graduating students stay seated while practicing social distancing during a graduation ceremony at Stanford University in Palo Alto on June 13, 2021. Photo by Harika Maddala for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Graduates make their way across the stage at UC Santa Barbara’s Guest House for individual ‘grad walks’ on June 8, 2021. Photo by Max Abrams for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Danny Tan, an automotive technician professor at Long Beach City College, watches virtual commencement on a large television screen inside his makeshift classroom on June 10, 2021. When the pandemic struck last year, Tan was required to move his class into the automotive laboratory, where air filters through constantly. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Ryan Wimsatt joins his hands to thank his parents during a graduation ceremony at Stanford University in Palo Alto on June 13, 2021. Photo by Harika Maddala for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Confetti from graduation celebrations covers the lawn in front of the UC Santa Barbara Guest House on June 8, 2021. Photo by Max Abrams for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Bianca Chavez, a computer engineer major, left, and Alexis Chavez, a film major, smile in excitement after graduating from Mt. San Antonio College on June 11, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for the CalMatters College Journalism Network 
San Diego State University’s Fowler College of Business held its in-person graduation ceremony at Petco Park on May 26, 2021. Graduates and guests were required to physically distance from other households in adherence to California Department of Public Health guidelines. Photo by Arlene Banuelos for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
A graduate hoots while spotting university President Robert. S Nelsen, as both share the “Stingers Up!” hand gesture, a school tradition, during the CARmencement at Sacramento State University on Friday May, 21, 2021. Photo by Rahul Lal for the CalMatters College Journalism Network
Graduates put their arms around each other while posing for a photo at a class of 2020 commencement ceremony at Occidental College, on June 12, 2021. Photo by Pablo Unzueta for the CalMatters College Journalism Network

This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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My name is Pablo Unzueta, I'm a full-time journalism student at Long Beach State and documentary photographer. I'm a first generation Chilean-American currently based in Long Beach, and was born and raised...