A Tumultuous Year Closes With Celebration

Whether in person or virtual, colleges and universities try to make this year's commencements joyous.

May 21, 2021
(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

As summer approaches, the season brings with it a spree of graduations, honors and ceremonies.

For some, in-person graduations may represent the hope that the pandemic is finally ending, even as new and confusing guidance around masking complicates safety procedures. Colleges with virtual ceremonies have engineered creative solutions to make students feel honored on their special day, though those events may still underscore to some how far there is left to travel.

Many colleges and universities have completed their graduation ceremonies by this point or will be completing them this or next weekend.

Some institutions, such as the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Long Island University, the University of Iowa and Pennsylvania State University, held outdoor ceremonies in stadiums and other venues. In some cases, attendees were asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 diagnostic test before entry. Other institutions, such as the University of Pennsylvania, held in-person events for students, but guests were asked to watch a livestream.

On social media, some students expressed relief that they were able to have an in-person ceremony, even if it wasn’t what they expected when they entered college.

“A year ago I gave up on having an in-person graduation but after yesterday I feel more relieved, confident, and hopeful than ever,” wrote one student, from California State University, Chico, on Twitter.

Recent new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention complicated policies around masking. The CDC now advises that people who have been fully vaccinated do not need to wear masks indoors or outdoors in most situations. Only 38 percent of the United States is fully vaccinated, but some states and municipalities have revised their mandates in response.

The University of Virginia, which held its commencement ceremonies this past weekend, removed its mask mandate for the event ahead of its start.

“Based on the advice of university medical experts, we are pleased to inform you that the university will follow the advice of the CDC and the governor and update our policy so that UVA community members who are fully vaccinated can now safely forego masks both indoors and outdoors,” officials wrote in a message to campus.

At Iowa, about 5,000 to 8,000 people attended the outdoor event, most of whom, The Gazette reported, were not wearing masks, owing to the new guidance.

Photos from the Penn graduation showed that, in light of the new recommendations, some students removed their masks after the outdoor ceremony.

Some of those institutions that held in-person graduations chose to include the Class of 2020, those students who largely didn’t receive in-person graduations last year.

At Rice University, the 2020 class received their own evening ceremony. About 60 percent of those from the class chose to attend.

David Leebron, president of Rice, said the tone for that ceremony was unique from other graduations the university has held.

“It’s different when you’re a year out. It’s a different set of reflections,” he said. “It was kind of an emotional homecoming, I think, for all of us.”

The university, Leebron said, had to grapple with how exactly to go about creating an event for students who were deprived of that experience last year. Should the goal be to try to recreate what was lost? Or do something different?

“Inevitably I think you end up doing the latter,” he said. “People want to have that moment of celebration, they want to partake in some of those traditions, but I don’t think they want to just pretend that this intervening year didn’t happen.”

Students and parents, he said, expressed gratitude for the in-person event. Last month, The Wall Street Journal reported that some 2020 graduates who were not attending in-person ceremonies this year said they felt left behind and left out. While some institutions have promised in-person ceremonies next year, the thought of traveling, taking time off work or returning fully two years after they left has some students regretful and doubting the value of such an event, WSJ reported.

Rice tried to find ways to alter and deconstruct traditions for seniors. For example, graduation ceremonies typically end with the senior class walking through the Sallyport, an archway on campus that students avoid until that day. The university had to schedule that portion of the ceremony for a different time, Leebron said.

Other institutions have also found ways to alter their existing traditions. Colorado College, for example, typically ends the year with a student dance performance, a music and arts festival, and a champagne shower for seniors. None of those could take place exactly as they did in years past, said Amy Hill, director of campus activities at the college.

Student dancers, who would usually perform live for an audience, prerecorded their choreography in groups of 10. The college held an outdoor screening of the video performance for 100 attendees. For the champagne shower, the college arranged for 12 masked and socially distant showers to honor graduates. Students were able to sign up in groups of 30 and then were given a barbecue meal to go.

“Had we not found a way to do it COVID-friendly and safer, it might have happened anyways, and that might not have been the best thing for our students,” Hill said. While in the past some students felt ambivalent about attendance because of social factors, doing the showers in smaller groups has also made the event more inclusive and accessible, and students have been more likely to participate, she said.

Some institutions have taken to the drive-in and drive-through models of graduation ceremonies. Davidson-Davie Community College, for example, let students drive up to the stage with a car of their guests. They could walk across, receive their degree and take a photo with the president and trustees.

“We had a lot of feedback both from the graduates and their families that they really loved the experience. It felt very personal to them,” said Jenny Varner, vice president for external affairs at DDCC. “At a traditional graduation ceremony you might be 35 rows of chairs away from the stage. And even though those ceremonies are nice, they’re big and they’re long.”

DDCC did allow 2020 graduates to also come back for the events, and about 20 former students chose to do so.

Still, some other colleges and universities opted to go fully virtual. New York University, for example, announced in February that it would not be holding an in-person event.

“We researched a range of scenarios -- indoor and outdoor, with and without guests, a traditional ceremony or a modified one -- and repeatedly ran into the obstacle that we simply cannot gather enough people safely to hold an in-person ceremony,” President Andrew Hamilton wrote to the campus. “With the slow rollout of vaccines, emergence of the new COVID variants, and the persistence of higher rates of COVID transmission than we were seeing just a few months ago, it is highly unlikely that restrictions on mass gatherings would be lifted in New York City to a level that Commencement in May would be feasible.”

However, earlier this month, New York governor Andrew Cuomo released new guidance allowing some types of graduations -- up to 500 people -- to go on if they are able to meet certain criteria, like having all guests vaccinated or show proof of a negative test.

“In spite of the recent and ongoing updates to capacity limitations and the pace of reopening in the city, NYU’s All-University Commencement must accommodate 18,000 people -- for students alone -- which means we faced significant logistical and capacity constraints, even as policies loosened,” Regina Drew, director of university events, said via email. “Our size and scale -- combined with the fact that we also do not have large campus stadia or theaters like many of our peers -- also dictates that we are unable to plan commencement without extensive lead time.”

Furthermore, Drew said, the virtual event is safer. NYU couldn’t have verified the vaccination status of all students before the event. The university has pledged to hold in-person ceremonies for the past two senior classes when it is safe to do so.

Whatever the modality, graduations are typically a time of reflection and looking forward. While infections continue and deaths from COVID-19 are still tallied each day, many now feel that the pandemic is coming to a descent in the United States. College administrators, along with their graduates, are no doubt looking forward to the months ahead.

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Lilah Burke

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