MAXWELL Air Force Base, Ala. --
The Air Force Senior Noncommissioned Officer Academy held its first in-person graduation ceremony since the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic more than a year ago.
The in-person graduation ceremony for the 174 senior enlisted students who made up Class 21-E was held on May 25, 2021, at the SNCOA at Maxwell Air Force Base-Gunter Annex.
Up to this point, either classes were held virtually or in-person, as was the class before this one, but the graduation ceremonies were all held virtually, owing to the large number of students and the need to adhere to pandemic health and safety protocols.
The SNCOA staff had safety in mind, however, well before deciding on an in-person graduation ceremony.
Among the precautionary measures taken was a major class-size reduction. Before the pandemic, the academy hosted about 280 students, but Class 21-E was made up of just 174 students. Additionally, students were tested for COVID-19 at the start of the 25-academic day course to mitigate the possible transmission of the virus. Aside from those measures, many students were vaccinated, and those who opted out of the vaccine were required to wear masks, as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Under these conditions, the SNCOA staff decided to hold an in-person graduation.
“A big part of the decision was safety and tradition,” said Senior Master Sgt. Juan Garza Jr., SNCOA director of resources. “The academy wanted to get back to recognizing our graduates, which included international students and sister service students.”
For the virtual graduations, SNCOA staff produced videos for each class, with prerecorded messages by guest speakers and the commandant as well as slides recognizing distinguished graduates and sister service personnel. Garza says that these virtual graduations were great, but he looked forward to returning to in-person graduations.
“This means we can begin the process of making it personal again, in a good way. Our virtual graduations were top notch,” said Garza. “We have a great team that put that together but it was missing one thing: human interaction. Graduating the SNCO Academy is a big accomplishment, and for many of us, it’s the last time we will be in a professional military education classroom and it should be special.”
Master Sgt. Jerry Vaughn, a graduate with Class 21-E, emphasized the importance of face-to-face interaction.
“I think during COVID we took for granted how much human interaction meant to us mentally. And this was a great experience to get back to a sense of normalcy,” said Vaughn.
Class 21-E logged nearly 882 community volunteer hours and raised more than $5,800 for charities and scholarships.
Garza says he has high expectations for this class.
“I hope graduates will go back and motivate, lead, inspire and develop future leaders that will work through organizational issues and be better prepared to lead in a joint environment,” he said.
SNCOA Class 21-E represents a big step in getting back to the new normal. The next class will increase in size from Class 21-E, numbering around 240 students, which is just shy of the pre-pandemic class size of 280.