A Private Jet, A Flight Across State And A Race For COVID-19 Tests To Make Graduation Colorado Mesa University was able to hold its graduation ceremonies in person this year, thanks to the use of a private jet to carry COVID-19 tests to and from a lab on the other side of the state.

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

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And finally today, the rhythms of high school life aren't the only thing that's been disrupted. Many colleges have had to cancel, postpone or move online an event that many students dream about for years. We're talking about graduation. But in rural Western Colorado, a university found a way for grads to walk across the stage with their families right there safely to clap. It involved a lot of COVID-19 tests, coordination and a private jet. Colorado Public Radio's Stina Sieg has the story.

STINA SIEG, BYLINE: It's cold out at Grand Junction's Regional Airport - and dark. Floodlights illuminate a sleek jet, all 58 feet of it, and a group from Colorado Mesa University walking its way.

JOHN MARSHALL: This is pretty surreal, to be honest with you. I mean, I guess no more surreal than anything else this year, right?

SIEG: CMU Vice President John Marshall is one of the few accompanying 60 COVID-19 tests from the small city to a lab on the other side of the state. 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.

MARSHALL: It's kind of a joyful, crazy ending to a crazy year, right?

SIEG: He and the rest of the CMU crew buckle in.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE TAKING OFF)

SIEG: While a private jet might sound like a drastic solution, this part of Colorado is isolated, nearly 300 miles and one big mountain pass away from the testing facility. Emma Leenerman coordinates CMU's testing program.

EMMA LEENERMAN: If we had to drive the tests tonight, I don't know that they would have got there.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIRPLANE ENGINE RUNNING)

SIEG: Especially since out her window, she can see snow rolling in.

SIEG: After only about half an hour, the group lands in Loveland, outside of Denver. As they hand off the box of tests, everyone is excited - even Matt Dukes, a scientist at Warrior Diagnostics.

MARSHALL: Thank you. I appreciate it.

MATT DUKES: I'm going to go and get to work.

MARSHALL: All right. Thank you.

DUKES: Yeah, take care. Have a great night.

SIEG: Pilot and CMU instructor Erling Brabaek is grinning in his Santa hat. He saved Christmas, someone jokes.

ERLING BRABAEK: Oh, no (laughter). No, we all saved Christmas.

SIEG: Including the man who donated the jet, Kevin Davis, who runs a local car dealership.

KEVIN DAVIS: You know, I hope the students appreciate it. And I just, you know, like to see them go and make a difference in the world.

SIEG: Davis dropped out of high school 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 family to graduate college.

DAVIS: For sure. I am, too. This is a big deal. It's pretty exciting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Jenny Alicia Rodriguez...

(APPLAUSE)

SIEG: The next morning, people are spread out in the stadium as they watch the graduates receive their diplomas and a gloved fist-bump from the school's president. Everyone is wearing a mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIEG: After a short ceremony, 26-year-old graduate Linford Ocloo waves up at his mom.

LINFORD OCLOO: We - I don't want to cry right now, but we've been through a lot. Thank you, God.

SIEG: Constance Garvie makes her way down to her son and beams about his accomplishment.

CONSTANCE GARVIE: I'm really, really happy. It's a long journey. And (laughter), hey, it's been a tough year. But at the end of the year, we're still happy.

SIEG: As they share this moment together, in person.

For NPR News, I'm Stina Sieg in Grand Junction, Colo.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREE NATIONALS' "LESTER DIAMOND (INSTRUMENTAL)")

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