UC Davis senior Matt Rybicki was too busy living life to think about slowing down for fall commencement in mid-December. There were the challenges of classes and final exams, preparation for law school and crew team practices, and there was the sweetness of his first love.
Now, instead, Matt's parents, Charleen Johnson and Roger Rybicki of Oakley, will walk across the commencement stage to accept the undergraduate degree earned by their 22-year-old son, who died in a car accident Nov. 9.
The grieving parents will be among about 750 graduates and guests celebrating the achievement of a bachelor's degree at two campus ceremonies on Saturday, Dec. 15. But these two parents also are among the one or two families a year who have the bittersweet experience of receiving a UC Davis degree awarded posthumously to a loved one.
"I'm going to accept it very proudly," said Roger Rybicki, who will be one of as many as 16 family members expected to attend the 2 p.m. commencement of the College of Letters and Science in the Pavilion.
An earned degree
Posthumous degrees are not available just for the asking. The executive council of the Academic Senate awards posthumous degrees to undergraduates who have a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or higher and are within 15 units of completing degree requirements. Many universities have similar policies for awarding degrees posthumously.
"Fortunately, we don't have to do it a lot," said Linda Bisson, chair of the Academic Senate at UC Davis. "When we do, it's well deserved by the students. It honors their efforts and their accomplishments here."
Matt, a member of the men's rowing team, earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in history with a minor in religious studies.
Undergraduates who have completed 84 or more units may be awarded a certificate recognizing their upper division standing, and graduate students may also be eligible for posthumous degrees.
At the June commencement of the School of Veterinary Medicine, for example, an academic hood was placed on an empty chair in remembrance of 26-year-old Allen Hayrapetian, who was posthumously awarded a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree.
A family affair
Two days before the accident that would claim Matt's life, he and his father talked about participation in commencement. "He was so focused on the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) and law pursuit that he was too busy," Rybicki said.
Nevertheless, participation in commencement was a family matter, and the father had tried to impress that on his son.
Matt's grandfather, Robert Rybicki, had opened accounts to save money for the education of his grandchildren. "That helped a little bit, and we all kicked in," Rybicki said.
Although the grandfather died in 1990, his wife, Josephine, would have been able to see Matt graduate. "It meant a lot for me to have Matt walk," said Rybicki. "One of the greatest gifts a family can give their child is a college education."
But on Nov. 9, tragedy would decide the matter. Matt and two other UC Davis students were on their way to join a rowing practice at the Port of Sacramento when their car was involved in an auto accident on Interstate 80 near campus. Matt and his girlfriend, Julie Bryant of Martinez, a second-year student, died. Their friend, Kelly Inabnett of Fairfield, a sophomore and a coxswain for the team, was recently discharged from the hospital.
Helping the families
When a student dies, staff members from Counseling and Psychological Services offer the family assistance with university-related matters: Do the parents want a campus memorial service? How are personal belongings collected from the residence hall? Does the student qualify for a posthumous degree?
Many families request the degree as a symbol of their student's accomplishment. From fall 2000 through this past spring, UC Davis has posthumously awarded six undergraduate and four graduate degrees, according to University Registrar Frank Wada.
At the College of Letters and Science, Dann Trask, assistant dean for undergraduate education and advising, helps prepare the request for a posthumous degree. In his 20 years of experience, he said, about half of the families opt to participate in the commencement ceremony by having a parent or sibling accept a degree.
"That's something we like to be able to offer," he said. "It's a very personal thing. We feel terribly for the family. It's such a tragic loss that comes as a horrible shock."
Trask, who has three grown children of his own, said he knows it is a difficult trip across the stage. "It's also a trip in which they have a sense of pride in their son or daughter's accomplishments," he said. "It's kind of the classic definition of bittersweet."
"We take every step we can as best we can to offer our condolences," he added, "and to give the family members a sense of pride in the accomplishment of their student."
And so, on Saturday, as some of the first graduates cross the stage and smile for the cameras of beaming parents, Trask will quietly escort Rybicki and Johnson to take their place in line with the waiting history majors.
In time, it will be announced that Matt's degree is being awarded posthumously and that his parents are receiving the diploma for him.
As usual, Trask said, he expects the graduates and guests will become a little quieter. "They share a little bit of the emotion the family must be feeling," he said.