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How Universities Plan to Hold Graduation Ceremonies Amid a Pandemic

Over the past two months, universities and colleges around the country have been working on ways to hold their graduation ceremonies amid a pandemic.

Many institutions have decided to host commencement online, some have decided to postpone it until crowd restrictions are lifted in states and others have decided to hold both a virtual ceremony and, at a later date, an in-person one.

Wesley College, the University of Maryland (UMD), Montana State University (MSU), and the University of Hawai’i Maui College (UHMC), for example, plan to host a virtual graduation as well as a traditional ceremony later this year. Dillard University’s virtual commencement took place on May 9.

What will a virtual commencement ceremony look like?

At UMD, its virtual celebration aims to recognize the Class of 2020’s accomplishments “while still creating a unique and engaging experience to cap off this milestone,” according to Dr. Brooke Lecky Supple, assistant vice president and chief of staff in the Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs at the school.

Dr. Wanda AndersonDr. Wanda Anderson

UMD’s commencement ceremony will be streamed across multiple platforms May 22. It will be student-focused and will include videos, messages and images from the graduates as well as a student speaker. Students can interact with the event live on social media.

Individual schools and colleges will also each host their own ceremonies and students’ names will be listed across the screen.

“Understandably, students are disappointed that they won’t be able to have the traditional in-person commencement experience this spring,” said Supple. “However, given the circumstances, students have been very accepting and understanding. Everyone knows that health and safety are our first priority.”

The in-person commencement ceremony is planned for December and graduates will also be offered complimentary tickets to a fall football game.

At MSU, students were mailed packages with their diploma cover, tassel and other items. Their actual diploma will be shipped later in the summer.

“As the packages arrive at their homes, we have seen postings on social media from students celebrating their achievements,” said Michael Becker, director of the MSU News Service. “The students have been very positive and understanding.”

Instead of a university-wide virtual ceremony, each of MSU’s colleges will host their own May 7-9 on Facebook and YouTube. Seniors are invited to attend the fall commencement Dec. 19 and each graduate’s name will be featured in the printed program.

“Our students have worked very hard for the past four to six years to reach this point,” said Becker. “MSU hopes that they know how proud everyone at the university is of their achievements and that we wish them nothing but the best.”

UHMC plans to live-stream its ceremony June 3 on either YouTube, Facebook or Google Meet. Students can submit their own photos or have the option to get them taken by a professional on campus by scheduling an appointment. Those photos will be incorporated into a slideshow alongside an assortment of other video clips throughout the event.

Albert Paschoal, director of student life at UHMC, said that the school wanted to give students a chance to still celebrate.

“It’s not a replacement but an addition to,” he added.

UHMC plans to host an on-campus ceremony once there are no longer health risks, though there is no tentative date set yet.

Dr. Karen L. OlmsteadDr. Karen L. Olmstead

“We are extremely proud of our graduating class of 2020,” said Paschoal. “They’ve gone through a tremendous amount of heartache and hardship. They are a testament to resiliency, I believe.”

Wesley College’s virtual ceremony will take place May 23 and students will have the opportunity to send in photographs of themselves in their caps and gowns.

Anderson said that the formal commencement will be a “huge celebration” while the virtual experience is just a “commercial for what’s to come.” The in-person ceremony will take place in September, either around homecoming or family weekend.

“Whatever can be said about Generation Z, they are truly resilient and they have the ability to see things in a much different light now in terms of acknowledging success,” said Dr. Wanda Anderson, dean of students at Wesley College.

“It’s never a substitution to have a culmination of your achievement occur online without seeing the faces of your faculty and your fellow students as you walk across the stage,” she added. “There’s nothing to replace that so it’s really about having the resilience to understand that this is just an acknowledgment that you did complete the process.”

Not all institutions will hold virtual and in-person ceremonies. Salisbury University, for example, has decided to only host a commencement ceremony, which is scheduled for  December.

“We really wanted that sense of connection and celebration that we thought might be harder to achieve in a virtual ceremony,” said Dr. Karen L. Olmstead, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at Salisbury. “We also felt with the time frame we had, the virtual ceremony might not be at the level of quality that we would want to have.”

However, the university worked with student government and the graduate student council to plan several celebratory events this month.

This week, students will receive gift packages from the university with the theme, “The Best is Yet to Come.”

Messages, photos and videos from faculty, staff and alumni can be accessed by students on the online tool Kudoboard. Students will also receive their diplomas in June and are encouraged to take photos to post in a Flickr gallery.

“As you can imagine, it’s taken a lot of creativity and logistical problem-solving to figure out how to pull all of this together in a relatively short period of time, including working with many vendors to coordinate delivery of items,” said Olmstead.

Individual departments also plan to host personalized virtual events for their students throughout the month.

“This graduating class has shown incredible fortitude and resiliency, so we will be celebrating that,” said Olmstead.

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

This story was updated May 11 at 11:45 a.m. EDT with a link to Dillard University’s May 9 virtual commencement ceremony.

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