By Vee Glessner
Although ERAU’s new Prescott campus didn’t anticipate any students graduating sooner than 1982, with its first class in 1978 expected to be entirely freshmen, not everything went exactly to plan.
The university ended up holding its first graduation in 1980, just two years after accepting its first class, which was a small, 15-student ceremony. In just a couple years, the size of the graduating classes increased dramatically.
In the style of the campus’s predecessor, Prescott College, graduation was held in the Davis Learning Center (DLC). “We could fit everybody we needed to graduate in the DLC; there was [sic] less than 360 students,” said Dean of Students Larry Stephan, who came on staff in Spring of 1979.
The ceremony at the time didn’t include all the banners, robes, and formalities it does today. “I think it still reflected the academic rigor that we do today, but it certainly wasn’t as formal,” according to Stephan, who has played a major part in the commencement ceremony every year since he joined the faculty. “I’ve read names virtually from the beginning,” he said.
As shown in the photo of Stephan’s notes on the commencement pamphlet, the ceremony was a very personal, individual process. Stephan would note which students were absent from the ceremony, special notes on pronunciations, and preferred name for each student. “I shook their hand [sic] and announced their name [sic] because I knew all of them so well. I feel like I know a lot of students now, but back then I knew all of the students, it seemed like,” said Stephan.
For John Fristachi, a Summer 1983 graduate and now-retired US Navy Captain, graduation was an especially memorable time: his peers elected him to speak at graduation. He told the story of his arrival to the hotel in Prescott that the school was putting students up in. “I had been in town for literally five minutes when the skies opened up, the streets flooded, and then a building across the street caught fire,” said Fristachi. Then, when a van arrived to pick him up from downtown, the only way he could identify it as a university vehicle was the letters “ERAU” written in the dust on the side.
Fristachi recounted to his classmates the way this admittedly rough start turned into a dream education for him and the ways that he saw the campus grow over his years there: the dusty van was renovated, the Mingus Mountain dorms were completed and he got to move out of the St. Michaels Hotel, and he got used to monsoon season. His speech is not only revealing about the rapid growth of the university but about how graduations were conducted at the time: informal, personal, and at times funny.
As the graduating classes grew, the university outgrew the DLC’s 360-student capacity and didn’t have anywhere else to turn: they began to host graduations outside on university property. Eventually, the university transitioned to the Prescott Valley Event Center, which can host over 5,000 people and is the current locale for commencement ceremonies.