SUNY Cortland grads mark day with large parties

Celebrating students hop from drinking party to drinking party Saturday on Clayton Avenue

Despite state health orders and a small, but rising, number of County COVID-19 cases, dozens of SUNY Cortland students attended crowded house parties Saturday to celebrate the 2020 college graduates.

While the number of parties was small compared to most years, the celebrations still dotted Tompkins Street, Owego Street, Prospect Terrace, Hill Street and Clayton Avenue. One of the smallest parties had about six students, while the largest ones had more than 30.  

The Centers for Disease Control COVID-19 guidelines note the virus is most often spread from person to person and, to stay healthy, people should avoid all gatherings and maintain six feet of distance when possible. There are currently seven COVID-19 cases in Cortland County, up from zero on May 5, according to the County Health Department.

Some SUNY students were trying to respect the guidelines as they enjoyed their last hours with their housemates and friends. Many did not. 

It was a tale of two parties Saturday evening on Prospect Terrace: at 8 Prospect a small group had gathered to play cornhole in the sunshine, while across the street in the parking lot of 36 Tompkins St. beer pong, loud music and drinking games were entertaining about 30 graduates and undergraduates.

A student celebrates Saturday after finishing a drinking game at a large party in the parking lot and house of 36 Tompkins St. celebrating SUNY Cortland graduation /SARAH BULLOCK

SUNY Cortland graduate Brittney Nguyen said the large party was their reward for four years of hard work. 

“All of us have been together the whole time through quarantine,” said Nguyen, referring to her housemates renting 36 Tompkins Street and those renting 9 Prospect St. next door. “I believe we should celebrate.”

In public the women wear their masks and follow the social distancing guidelines, Nguyen said. But she missed the many send-off celebrations her friends had when they graduated a year ago and felt the house party was just a small substitute for what might have been.

“We should have a right to celebrate,” she said.

Friends crowd together while drinking on a porch Saturday at 36 Tompkins Street. Partiers were celebrating SUNY Cortland graduation./SARAH BULLOCK

Across the way, the housemates of 8 Prospect St. were more health conscious.

“As far as party wise, I don’t think it’s the right time to party,” said graduate Harriett Palmer. 

Sunshine and yard games were their form of celebration.

“We’re trying to be as smart as we can,” said housemate Kristie Roth. “Obviously, socially distancing.”

The women renting the house invited their boyfriends over, but that was the extent of the guest list.

The warm weather was the silver lining of having their graduation day postponed until May 2021, said graduate Ryan Harriman.

“We felt weird waking up,” said Palmer, “because this was supposed to be the day.”

SUNY Cortland graduates celebrate with yard games Saturday afternoon at 8 Prospect Terrace./SARAH BULLOCK

On Clayton Avenue, SUNY students were just as disappointed as Palmer, but more ready to drown their sorrows together at several house parties.

There were about 20 SUNY Cortland students celebrating with beers and spiked seltzers in the lawn of 52 Clayton Ave. A handful of other house parties were spilling into the street and mingling at the base of the hill near the intersection of Main Street. Beer pong tables were set up. Lacrosse was played in the street heedless of traffic.

Graduating senior Kayla Rio said the day was sad, but she and her friends were “enjoying our last moments with friends.”

“I cried all day,” said graduate Addie Collins. “Even if we have our own ceremony next year, I’ll have moved on.”

In lieu of Saturday’s planned graduation, the friends held their own using diplomas handed out by the Dark Horse Tavern on Main Street, one of the partygoers said.

“We had a great graduation ceremony in our driveway,” Collins said.

Later, the friends took a dip in a kiddie pool blown up in the yard, said Russell Howard, another senior at the party.

The group of seniors decided to party as SUNY Cortland could no longer suspend them.

“We figure Cortland can’t expel us because we’ve graduated, so we’ll get together,” said Collins.

But some of the partygoers, like some of the attendees at the 36 Tompkins St. bash, were undergraduates.

In a March 23 email, Greg Sharer, the college’s Vice President of student affairs told students to maintain social distancing and noted Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s executive order forbids social gatherings. 

“Students choosing to ignore these health and safety directives may be charged through the student conduct process and could face immediate suspension from SUNY Cortland,” Sharer wrote.

SUNY Cortland officials could not be reached over the weekend for comment.

While phased business reopenings started Friday, the orders to maintain a six-foot distance from others and prohibitions against gatherings remain in place, according to state press releases.

City police received only four calls between Saturday and Sunday regarding partying, said Lt. Michael Strangeway.

“It’s a tough time for everyone, but particularly for young people,” Strangeway said. “Overall, comparing it to years past, it was far and away more responsible behavior.”

City police cars were parked Saturday on Tompkins Street as the officers patrol the area for parties