Xavierites have a history of going above and beyond, including XULA Parents! Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic meant that universities and colleges had to cancel traditional commencement celebrations for the class of 2020, including Xavier University of Louisiana. Understandably, many graduating students were devastated by this news, including public health major Gabrielle Pierce. 

May 17, 2020

Like many Xavier students, Gabrielle received the news of Xavier's postponed Commencement ceremony in March. The University has a virtual Commencement planned for May 23, and an in-person celebration scheduled for the fall. However, Gabrielle was still disappointed that she wouldn't be able to cross the stage after four years of hard work. Her father, Torrence Burson, knew that something had to be done.

"She was sobbing, crying, for basically a week… I have to do something, because she was really looking forward to walking, and we were really looking forward to seeing her walk," he said. 

Mr. Burson hatched a plan that would eventually garner national attention. Over a few weeks, he spared no expense in tracking down a stage, a podium, streamers, and more, even being willing to drive two or three hours out of his way to get what he needed. Mr. Burson was determined to give his daughter a commencement to remember. 

When Mr. Burson first told Gabrielle of his plans for a front-yard graduation ceremony, she was skeptical but curious. What awaited her was beyond her expectations. 

"You know when you wake up as a kid Christmas morning, and you see all the toys up under the tree? That's how I felt. It was the most perfect moment," she said. 

Gabrielle said that she felt overwhelmed by the lengths her father had gone to. Mr. Burson was also overwhelmed at seeing his daughter so happy.

"Sometimes, words really can't express. My heart was overjoyed- To be able to do this for her… it was overwhelming. The big tears that she shed…"

Mr. Burson had other surprises for Gabrielle- most of her family and friends were invited and able to watch the ceremony from a safe distance. The graduation march was played on a loudspeaker, and loved ones driving by yelled out their congratulations. 

For Gabrielle, her front-yard Commencement was perhaps even a little bit better than the original event might have been. Most of her family was able to attend the celebration. 

Her family now lives in Memphis, but they are New Orleans natives who had to migrate to Tennessee in the wake of Katrina. Gabrielle always wanted to return to the Crescent City, however. After falling love with the campus and atmosphere during a visit, Xavier became her top choice of colleges. 

Originally, Gabrielle had aspirations to be a plastic surgeon. However, she didn't find the required science courses for that path interesting. While exploring the idea of a degree in Public Health, she stumbled on epidemiology. Finding her calling in epidemiology, she wants to one day work for the CDC. 

"I want to help people, to prevent the big epidemics and pandemics from happening. I just want to keep everyone in the world safe and healthy,” she said.

Her next step after earning her bachelor’s degree in public health is to enlist in the Army National Guard. Gabrielle hopes to use the military's benefits to pay down her student loans and help her with graduate school fees. She is also hoping to gain experience in the medical field through her enlistment, as well as "get a foot in the door" for her future endeavors.

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