Coronavirus graduation: Students grapple with virtual commencement

May 21, 2020 by

College seniors are finding creative ways to mark graduation. But for many grads, it’s not the pomp and circumstance they miss, it’s each other.

As rewarding as a journey can be, it can be difficult to see a long-anticipated celebration simply evaporate. Disappointed but undeterred, college seniors are finding other ways to commemorate graduation.

In the days leading up to graduation, Elon University in North Carolina is unusually quiet. While some students trickle back onto campus to take photos in maroon graduation robes, most have gone home. Seniors will not gather under the historic oak grove for a farewell picnic with faculty and staff, and on graduation day, no one will walk across the stage in the new Schar Center to accept a diploma.

Instead, the long-awaited recognition of achievement will arrive as an email following a livestreamed conferral ceremony on May 22.

Kendall Hiti plans to watch the event with her friends on Zoom. Then, when the lease on her off-campus apartment is up, she’ll start the 44-hour road trip home to San Francisco. “It’s really not what I expected out of all of this,” she says.

Senior springs are typically packed with beloved traditions and emotional goodbyes as students prepare to launch into the “real world.” Instead, many college seniors are stuck in their childhood bedrooms wondering: “What now?”

As schools rush to provide online graduation programming, students say it’s hard to find closure after the coronavirus scattered classmates around the world. For many, these virtual ceremonies feel like placeholders. And colleges, which are trying to balance student disappointment and public safety concerns, have been slow to commit to a makeup commencement sometime in the future.

Donovan Livingston, an assistant dean at Wake Forest University and author of the viral 2016 convocation address “Lift Off,” says this pandemic has challenged schools and individuals to preserve those feelings of accomplishment until college communities can gather together again.

Courtesy of Donovan Livingston
Assistant Dean Donovan Livingston, seen here in August 2017, received his Ph.D. in educational leadership and cultural foundations this week after defending his dissertation over Zoom.

“One thing that’s been fascinating is to see that energy universities are putting into creatively finding ways to celebrate their students,” he says, “whether it’s gathering notable alumni and getting them to show love and appreciation or hosting … these virtual commencement ceremonies.”

Touchstones and keepsakes

It takes a lot for schools to cancel commencement. In 1970, several colleges and universities cancelled graduation ceremonies following the Kent State shootings and ongoing protests over the Vietnam War. But many other schools simply adapted traditions to acknowledge the student unrest, or just proceeded as usual.

Today, widespread lockdowns have left an unprecedented crater in higher education, derailing spring classes and graduation ceremonies. During the initial evacuation of college campuses in March, some members of the class of 2020 took a moment to re-create their most anticipated senior traditions.

At Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, seniors marched themselves across campus in a stripped-down version of the college’s annual Laurel Parade. Colorado College’s graduating class fast-tracked their end-of-year bash, with students gathering for a toast at the school flagpole. Jela Latham, a senior at Ohio University, made sure to nab a loose brick on her way out of Athens, Ohio, in March. Stealing an Athens brick is a way seniors take a little piece of their beloved college town with them, says Ms. Latham. “The university hates it but I don’t think it’s a tradition that’s going down any time soon,” she says.

Courtesy of Jela Latham
Jela Latham poses for a photo on Ohio University’s largely empty campus in Athens, Ohio, in late April. The coronavirus derailed Ms. Latham’s senior spring, pushing classes and end-of-year traditions online.

Since their final days on campus, seniors say online classes and end-of-year celebrations have fallen flat. It’s not the pomp and circumstance they miss, but the casual conversations, conspiratorial whispers between classmates, and accidental run-ins on the quad.

“Everyone’s working really, really hard. So there was something magical about the opportunity to have this … unstructured time with each other,” says Julia Pinney, a senior at Georgetown University in Washington D.C. “I’ve realized it’s really easy to keep in touch with friends who you know super well. But the casual friends, who really bring a lot of joy to life, that’s really hard to replicate by Zoom.”

But college administrations are still searching for ways to make their newly minted graduates feel special.

Virtual commencement

Schools are trying to preserve as many elements of commencement as possible, from celebrity keynote speakers to department receptions and student galleries – often with mixed success.

Ms. Latham, a first-generation student majoring in publication design, has been waiting to see her work hanging in Ohio University’s senior show since she was a freshman. It would have been a great opportunity for her parents to interact with the professors who shaped her college experience. “I don’t think my dad has ever met any of my professors,” she says.

Instead, they got a peek into some student traditions.

“We had a virtual senior farewell toast, which is usually held in a giant ballroom,” she says. “We did that through Zoom. It was actually really cool because my family watched it with me.”

Northeastern University in Boston will not host a classwide ceremony online, but students who fall under the College of Arts, Media and Design had a 40-minute celebration on Zoom on May 1 with messages from deans and a student performance of “Lean on Me.” At the end, graduates’ names ran across the screen like movie credits.

Evan Ortega, a geography student at University of Washington, submitted a photo of himself and nominated a favorite teacher in preparation for his department’s graduation ceremony on June 11. He also requested eight “tickets” – protected links – to the university’s larger graduation event on June 13. Mr. Ortega is still renting a house 10 minutes from campus, but his best friend and family will attend virtually from a suburb outside Seattle. He plans on moving home in late July.

Despite his disappointment, Mr. Ortega is trying to focus on the positive, like the extra time he’s been able to spend with his roommates, and his family’s overall health and safety.

“I do wish that I could have had a normal graduation,” he says. “However, I think the fact that I’m still graduating, that I’m finished with all this, is still relieving. … My mom also sent me an email, and she was like ‘whatever happens, graduation gifts are not cancelled because of COVID-19.’”

Mixed feelings over future ceremonies

Many people are still hanging onto the idea of having a “normal” graduation together at some point, but colleges face the challenge of retrofitting their traditions into an undetermined weekend. Some smaller schools, like Bennington College in Vermont, have simply invited graduates to walk in the 2021 commencement. Elon University has floated the idea of hosting belated graduation ceremonies over fall vacation, but ongoing concerns about the coronavirus have made the administration hesitant to commit to a date.

“We get at least one email weekly that’s a huge update on everything,” says Ms. Hiti, who graduates from Elon University on May 22. “I just wish there was information confirmed on the in-person graduation … because I’d be flying all the way from California.”

Some students wonder if it will even be safe to gather so many people together again, or if schools will unintentionally exclude international students or those who can’t afford last-minute travel. Others are feeling more apathetic about returning to campus at all.

While Ms. Pinney misses her classmates, the American studies student is a bit skeptical about Georgetown University’s makeup celebration.

“I’m very much transitioned into being a grad,” she says. “I hang out with my high school best friends. I hang out with my parents. I walk my dog. … I feel very disconnected from Georgetown at this point.”

But Dr. Livingston thinks creating the opportunity for seniors to reunite once restrictions are lifted is critical.

“Finding ways to celebrate students no matter where they are [in their careers] is really important,” he says. “If you have a student that’s graduated and they’re at an entry level job on Wall Street, they still might feel the need to come back to campus to have that moment, to have that sense of closure, that sense of community.”

Correspondents Asia Palomba and Riley Robinson contributed to this report.

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