Not everyone earns the right to walk across a stage and accept a college-level diploma, especially for a doctoral degree.
Even fewer can say their face graces a highway billboard that acknowledges that accomplishment.
Although Lexi Lohr, of Conemaugh Township, Somerset County, earned the right to be handed her sheepskin on an elevated stage in front of an audience, like many other 2020 graduates, she did not.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh held its commencement ceremonies via live video feed Saturday. The diploma that states she has satisfied all of the requirements for her Doctorate of Pharmacy degree will instead be found in her mailbox this week.
A journey that began eight years earlier as a sophomore at Conemaugh Township Area High School in Davidsville ended in somewhat understated fashion.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to have an awesome graduation. I’ll get to see my friends. All of us together one last time,’ ” Lohr said. “To want to experience that and then have it taken away, at first I was just completely upset, mad and frustrated, but now I’m coming to terms with it.”
Lohr’s parents, Doug and Ann Lohr, decided a billboard on Eisenhower Boulevard in Riverside would help their daughter’s graduation feel special. They arranged to surprise their daughter with a large placard that features her portrait and the words “Congratulations Dr. Alexis Ann Lohr, Duquesne University Pharm D Class of 2020.”
Initially, Ann Lohr had some large banners created for Lexi Lohr’s graduation party in June, but wanted to do something more. The idea developed while she was driving through Ferndale one day: “A billboard! That would be so cool.”
After a few phone calls and price comparisons the decision was made.
“We’re just going to take the banner and put it on a billboard and not tell her,” Ann Lohr said.
On May 11, Ann Lohr drove to Riverside and caught the crew from Lamar Advertising just starting to put up the giant poster. After learning the task would be complete in 15 to 20 minutes, she quickly returned home to pick up her daughter – whom she told to buckle up and cover her eyes.
When the two closed in on the billboard, Ann Lohr told Lexi to open her eyes.
“I looked and I’m like, ‘Oh my God! There’s my big head!’ ” Lexi Lohr said.
Parents ‘cheer me on’
The family’s smartphones vibrated and pinged with activity within the first hour after the giant poster went up. Phone calls, texts and Facebook messages numbering in the hundreds poured in.
“Thank God I got her there, just in time before somebody saw it,” Ann Lohr said. “It worked out perfectly, actually.”
Lexi Lohr told her parents, “Oh my gosh, you guys are the best, you’ve always been the best,” adding, “I absolutely love it. I had no idea.”
Lexi Lohr appreciated the gesture, and the ongoing support her parents provide.
“They’re awesome,” she said. “They’re making the best of this for me. Honestly, I couldn’t be more blessed to have better parents.
“Every day they both cheer me on, and have helped me tremendously through pharmacy school. I don’t know where I’d be without them.”
Her parents delight in their daughter’s accomplishment.
“We couldn’t be prouder,” Doug Lohr said. “We had seen her bust her butt in high school and knew whenever she went off to Pittsburgh that she was not going down there to party.”
Ann Lohr agreed: “I knew, even when she was younger, that she was more dedicated and more motivated than me or anybody else. She just has that drive. She is a very Type A personality. I just knew that no matter what she did that she was going to be successful, no matter what path she took in life.”
A 2014 Conemaugh Township graduate, Lexi Lohr credits teachers such as Erin Siverd and Wayne Adams, who gave her rigorous coursework that made introductory college courses seem easy. “There were a lot of teachers from Conemaugh Township that really helped me prepare for the college phase.”
She was accepted into Duquesne’s program that summer and started her pre-pharmacy education that fall.
“Not only are you adjusting to a whole new environment, but the coursework is crazy and your life just does a complete 180 from near-normal,” Lohr said.
The work really began two years later, when she entered pharmacy school.
Comparing the experience to the stress of a typical college finals week, she said: “Pharmacy school is like finals week semester-round. And then finals week for pharmacy school is like finals on steroids.”
With six- to eight-hour days of coursework, Lohr took between 18 to 21 credits every semester.
Rising early, attending classes, then studying in the school’s library until until 10 or 11 p.m, was common.
“It was an everyday thing,” she said.
Twice a week, she would rise at 5 a.m. to study for 7:30 a.m. exams on just four or five hours of sleep, then have a class the remainder of the day, followed by more studying in the library.
“A lot of people don’t understand how rigorous the coursework is,” she said, “and how dedicated you have to be.”
Ann Lohr remembers some of the phone calls she and her husband would receive from their stressed out daughter.
“A couple times she called crying, saying ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ – and I’d have to talk her off the ledge,” Ann Lohr said. But anxiety of flunking tests gave way to sighs of relief as Lexi Lohr always managed to pull off an A, or B at the worst.
Typical summers off came to a screeching halt as clinical rotations and internships were required. She worked a 40-hour-per-week job at a few local pharmacies, and Chan Soon-Shiong Medical Center at Windber, where instead of getting paid to work, she had to pay to work, as it was educational. Often, she had a paid job to go to afterward at Conemaugh’s pharmacy.
“But all of the rotations that I had, I had great pharmacists that I worked under,” Lexi Lohr said. “They always taught me so much. I had amazing experiences.”
Although most all of her clinical rotations were done in the Greater Johnstown and Pittsburgh areas, she jumped on the opportunity to do a 10-week rotation in Italy.
“It was very, very different, to say the least,” she recalled.
Even though she can practice anywhere in the country, she plans to stay in western Pennsylvania, where at least until June 10 – the day the billboard comes down – she will be easily recognized.
“Even though COVID took away my graduation,” she said, “one thing COVID or anyone else can’t take away from me is my degree.”