Commencement marks the end of a long journey for college students and the beginning of another chapter of their respective lives, whether that means stepping into the workforce or continuing their education. It’s a proud moment for students and parents alike, and one that many didn’t get to formally celebrate in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic scrambled college graduation plans en masse.
Now, more than a year into the pandemic, colleges have employed various strategies to help graduates celebrate their big moment safely. While colleges that didn’t cancel outright leaned heavily on virtual graduations in 2020, many are now shifting back to in-person ceremonies – often with limited attendance – and a few have introduced tech-savvy tools that make graduation day look like something out of a science fiction novel.
Colleges generally hold commencement ceremonies in May or June, meaning graduation season has arrived.
Many colleges are approaching graduation ceremonies with lessons learned from a year of battling the COVID-19 pandemic. While everyone was essentially making it up as they went along in 2020, colleges have had time to plan for 2021, a luxury they did not have last spring.
Additionally, class of 2020 graduates are finally getting their moment in the spotlight as some schools have included them in 2021 commencement ceremonies. Such was the case at Baylor University in Texas, which moved commencement outside to its football stadium earlier this month.
“The outdoor venue allowed for proper social distancing and lessened COVID-19 related concerns,” Jason Cook, vice president for marketing and communications and chief marketing officer at Baylor, wrote in an email. “We hosted six ceremonies over three days (two for the class of 2020 and four for 2021 graduates).”
In late May, DePaul University in Chicago is offering an in-person “Graduation Celebration” prior to a virtual commencement on June 12. The celebration spans 10 days and offers students the chance to walk across a graduation stage in their cap and gown. Graduates are allowed to bring a limited number of guests and are required to adhere to social distancing requirements for these ticketed events.
“The Class of 2021 is unique; they are a class that finished their final year almost entirely online,” Salma Ghanem, DePaul’s provost, wrote in an email. “However, we know how important the connection to campus is for students. We wanted to welcome the Class of 2021 back to campus, to this place where they belonged as students and where they will always be welcomed as alumni.”
While the approach to graduation can vary by school, individual colleges within a university may also have their own unique offerings. The Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University, for example, held an interactive commencement ceremony in early May for undergraduate and graduate students that ASU officials touted as the “most technologically advanced commencement ceremony in the history of higher education.”
Thunderbird hosted in-person outdoor events and remote offerings, which featured a commencement speaker who appeared as a hologram, graduates participating in the form of robot avatars and a dean officiating in a digital rendering of the new headquarters for Thunderbird, which is still under construction. With both spring and fall semester graduations, this was the third virtual commencement that ASU held, which school officials say allowed the university to fine-tune plans for a graduation day that may influence future ceremonies.
Colleges planning in-person events must abide by local regulations that may limit the number of participants allowed, which may mean fewer family and friends attending. Many graduations require tickets to attend. Likewise, social distancing requirements are common.
Experts encourage students to familiarize themselves with school social distancing rules, guest limits and ticketing requirements. And despite the limitations prompted by COVID-19 precautions, graduates should make the most of celebrating their big moment.
Ghanem encourages students to reflect on not only their academic experience, but also the “mission of service” at DePaul.
“On graduation day, they should celebrate with their family and friends all that they have accomplished, and they should reflect on their time at DePaul where they asked ‘What must be done?’ and then went out and did it,” Ghanem says.
Considering the variances in academic calendars and school structures, some colleges may have commencements later this year for graduates who finish in the summer term. Plans for such graduations – which typically have fewer graduates – are still up in the air at some schools, with the hope of a return to normalcy as pandemic precautions are lifted with more Americans being vaccinated.
“We have not yet nailed down our plans for August commencement, as COVID-19 restrictions continue to ease and it’s typically 100-plus degrees in Waco in August,” Cook says.
The pandemic has been a shared nightmare for many due to the loss of life, jobs and human interactions. And while higher education has faced losses in terms of auxiliary revenues and slumping enrollment, there have also been moments of hope and the recognition that COVID-19 has opened the door to more inclusive online environments and a more robust use of learning tools and technologies, some observers say.
For some colleges, COVID-19 may shape commencement for years to come. At ASU Thunderbird, administrators are thinking about how to continue to leverage technology for future commencements.
“Going forward, we will have hybrid graduations,” says Sanjeev Khagram, Thunderbird’s director general and dean.
That means holograms, robot avatars and other interactive digital elements may continue to be a part of Thunderbird graduations for years to come. Considering the many students enrolled online at ASU, including those in other countries, hybrid commencements allow more graduates to participate, creating a more inclusive experience for those who can’t make it to campus.
“Some of them come to graduation because they’re so proud of their accomplishment, but many of them can’t; they’re international, they’re far away, they can’t afford it,” Khagram says. “This allowed all of those online students to participate in a way that they never could.”