Don’t Cancel Commencement

This year, the podium and platform may be gone, but the audience may be wider than ever if your institution reinvents the ceremony, Vinca LaFleur and Ilana Ross argue.

March 31, 2020
 
 
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Across the country, colleges and universities are canceling their spring commencement ceremonies. Nobody can argue with the reasoning -- it’s dangerous to bring a crowd that size together in the middle of a pandemic.

But here’s the good news: with modern technology and a dash of creativity, graduates don’t have to give up the tradition. And they shouldn’t. Especially in these unsettling times, rituals that provide a sense of meaning and community are more important than ever.

After all, at their core, commencement ceremonies are about much more than the physical events, the stadiums and stages, the silly hats and gowns. They’re intended to honor graduates’ accomplishments, to collectively mark a moment and to initiate young people into the larger community of citizens. This year’s graduates are dealing with unprecedented challenges as their studies are disrupted, their social lives altered and their job prospects suddenly clouded by recession. What should have been the best few months of their best four years -- the heyday of hope and camaraderie -- is now, instead, a time of chaos, closure and confusion. They deserve not only fanfare for what they have achieved but also guidance and encouragement for what comes next.

In a traditional commencement, that job falls to the commencement speaker: the esteemed guest, often a public figure, politician or celebrity, who shares wisdom and perspective gathered from their own life experience.

At best, commencement speeches transcend the campus that happens to be hosting, because their messages strike a powerful chord with young people far and wide. Think Steve Jobs at Stanford University in 2005: “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.” Or J. K. Rowling at Harvard University in 2008: “We do not need magic to change the world. We carry all the power we need inside ourselves already: we have the power to imagine better.” Or Abby Wambach at Barnard College in 2018, activating a rising generation of women: “We will not Little Red Riding Hood our way through life. We will unite our pack, storm the valley together and change the whole bloody system.”

This year, the podium and platform may be gone, but not the audience. Indeed, for colleges and universities that make the most of this opportunity -- and speakers who embrace technology to communicate in new ways -- the audience may be wider than ever.

What could a reimagined commencement look like? Here are some ideas.

Make it collaborative. Graduation day is about the students, after all, so colleges should start by asking them for their ideas. If you doubt this generation’s imagination and creativity, just spend 10 minutes on TikTok.

Go virtual, go visual. Send graduates an invite with a date, a time and a link -- maybe a mortarboard and inflatable beach ball, too -- and broadcast the ceremony online. Invite your speakers to use visuals, allowing for a more dynamic presentation than the standard fare. In fact, this year could be a great opportunity for directors and visual artists to give innovative, compelling addresses. Think Pixar meets “Pomp and Circumstance.”

Divert events budgets into class(y) gifts. A virtual ceremony costs less money. How about diverting this year's events budget to any number of civic initiatives to honor what this class has endured? For instance, help the most vulnerable students pay down their loans so they can participate in the economy. Or grant a living stipend in exchange for one year of domestic public service and then challenge other universities to match: a kind of AmeriCorps for the Class of 2020.

Encourage community participation. Normally, graduation speakers are invited by the college. This year, it’s anyone’s game. Imagine a movement on social media -- #dearclassof2020 -- with people everywhere sharing advice and showing graduating students worldwide that we have their backs.

In 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt encouraged young graduates at Oglethorpe University to rise to the challenges of their time: “Yours is not the task of making your way in the world, but the task of remaking the world which you will find before you.”

Soon we’ll be counting on this year’s graduates to help us remake the troubled world that’s waiting for them. The least we can do is send them off right.

Bio

Vinca LaFleur is managing partner and Ilana Ross is a director at West Wing Writers.

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