It’s Virtually Commencement

Don't follow the crowd. Maria Shine Stewart advocates a make-your-own graduation ceremony.

April 26, 2012

When the air is full of pollen and your antihistamine is not working properly, chances are it’s time for commencement.

Whether you completed your studies in person, online, or a combination of both, you are reaching the end of the journey. And -- let’s face it -- commencement “exercises” will be a heck of a lot cheaper if you do them at home. When you consider the traditional gloss of commencement as a beginning (not an end), why not begin on the right foot? Whether you attended a private, public, or for-profit institution, in this time of budget constraints, wouldn’t you rather that all that fuss and expense be channeled into scholarships for the class of 2015? Who needs "Pomp and Circumstance"? Replace it with voluntary frugality.

Escape the hassle. Unlike taking part in on-ground exercises, which are actually more like calisthenics, you will feel free as a bird commemorating the end/beginning of your journey on your own.

Define your terms

Don’t confuse virtually commencement with virtual commencement, which already exists and engendered 9,850 hits, if Google is to be believed. To virtually graduate is a finer point and an acknowledgement of all that hard work — but privately, in the comfort of your own home. You decide how to celebrate, when, and with whom. It’s like eloping, but with yourself and all the knowledge you gained. It’s self-directed, independent, sassy – just what college hoped you would become.

Expect resistance

As with any idea ahead of its time, expect naysayers. Innovations are always first greeted with a degree of scoffing. There are some that will counter that your virtually-commencement approach is intellectually soft, shows lack of commitment to your education or loyalty to your school, deprives your relatives the chance to celebrate your (their) success, or is just plain lazy.

It’s cost-effective

Be practical. The amount you save on a cap and gown alone just may pay for your Internet service next month. Home commencement also is green and virtually stress-free. And the well-named graduation fee may be avoided. Two things are certain in academic life: grades and the graduation fee.

Don’t mount a frontal attack on naysayers. Just don’t invite them. You did not complete that 300-level Conflict Negotiation class for nothing.

With your customized, self-directed commencement, there will be no more hassle about who gets the tickets, where to park, or did the regalia in the right color arrive. You won’t have to worry about being the bright orange standout in a sea of white -- or vice versa. You can free up all that energy and pour it into your speech.

Foster your creativity

No more sitting through an interminable address (given for a handsome fee) that usually begins: I wasn’t the best student in college and I made millions anyway or I sweated bullets writing this speech even though I have a string of best-sellers to my name

Neither opening has even the rhetorical nuance you crafted in your first essay for freshman comp.

Instead, you can listen to bits and pieces of whatever commencement speech you want, at home, with the degree of privacy provided by your computer. Or, the creatively inclined might consider opening a book of sayings at random and arranging them any way you like. A five-point speech will keep you on your toes and won’t be that different from most sentiments wafting through the air at this time.

Here were my picks:

1. “All’s well that ends well.”

2. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.”

3. “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”

4. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”

5. “Don’t look back. Something may be gaining on you.”

Tweak a few of these, check attribution through Wikipedia, wiggle some revisions, and soon you will have a shiny new commencement speech, without the grating feedback of a faulty microphone or having to pretend to hear despite the chattering in front of you.

It’s dignified

At home, there will be no embarrassing walk across the stage in the wrong shoes (too formal or too casual) and no more long lists of mispronounced names to listen to. There will be no more last-minute crises when commencement was scheduled outside in a downpour for your rural school or in a noisy rental hall miles away for schools without a massive auditorium or at an urban coliseum with a cavernous parking garage. Commencement should not end with panic. That’s how college, in many cases, began.

In the virtually accessible commencement arena, it is always sunny and seats are unlimited; however, there is a real chance of lumbar injury if you’re not careful to get up and stretch once in a while.

And there is no need for anyone to hold their applause until the end, which always demanded unreasonable restraint after all those years of worry and effort.

High tech – if you want

At home, you can run through the ceremony quickly with a series of clicks — if you decide to go virtually virtual. If you are sociable, arrange a viewing party. If your friends are don’t care that much about you anyway, they can read your Twitter update.

Even for a scaled-down ceremony, it is best to prepare emotionally and physically as you would for any rite of passage. Budget; plan; expect delays. People study online, date online, and soon will marry, give birth, divorce, and have their memorial services strictly online. This is the next logical step.

No tussles with tassels

Commencement garb is cost-prohibitive. Most would agree that the look is archaic even as the prices tilt to the progressive. Here is a list, only slightly modified, from one school’s website:

Undergraduate candidates: $34.99
Master’s degree candidates: $54.99
Ph.D. degree candidates: $74.99 (indefensible)
Law degree candidates: $89.99 (negotiable)

Furthermore, there are stiff fines if one does not get the gown back in time. Do you think Cinderella had problems, with her coach turning back into a pumpkin and one missing shoe? That will be the least of your worries, if you are found in default of the fees of renting your commencement gown. And have you ever wondered who wore the gown last?

Avoid bad feng shui. Wear something else. A bathrobe also erases class distinctions and may do just fine.

Many schools will reclaim the cap and gown but let you keep the tassel — and how generous is that? Can it be used as a bookmark? If you hang it in your office, will that impress anyone?

Not to mention the silly fumbling of which side it starts on and where it should be placed next. You simply can’t do that and text at the same time.

Full disclosure

Though I work only intermittently on my second master’s, I do try to practice what I preach, so I virtually practiced writing my own commencement speech last year at this time. I even practiced it in the park, to an audience of Canada geese and my dog. I wore pink shorts, and my shoes got a little muddy. I drank two cups of strong coffee while orating, and the speech received a standing ovation. I would not have been able to do any of that at a traditional commencement ceremony.

A rousing finale

Select your own music. Give your school orchestra or band the day off. Or, turn on a relaxation CD to catch up on your rest; you’ll need it when you prepare to enter the job market. A forearm splint might soon replace the traditional mace, which always looked a little scary to most folks anyway.

Click when you are ready to graduate.


Maria Shine Stewart teaches writing on three campuses and works as a contributing editor/writer for a northeast Ohio business publication. She writes the "A Kinder Campus" column for Inside Higher Ed.


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