Education

Pandemic Pomp and Circumstance: Graduation Looks Different This Year (Again)

/Michelle Kondrich for NPR

In Jasmine Williams' family, graduating from the University of Michigan is a rite of passage. Her parents met on the campus, and her older sister graduated from the school a few years ago. She remembers sitting bundled up in the family section for that graduation. "It was overwhelming to feel so many people that proud," she says, "I remember sitting there watching her, and that was probably the first time I was like, 'OK, yeah, I like this. I can't wait to do this.'

This year, Williams' own graduation will look a bit different. The main undergraduate ceremony will be all virtual, though the university has invited students to watch that ceremony from the football stadium on campus known as the Big House. There will be no family members in attendance, and students will be required to have a negative COVID-19 test result to enter.

"I think it's hard not to downplay it when it's reduced to a Zoom," says Williams. But come Saturday, she's planning on donning her cap and gown and heading to the stadium with friends. "Knowing that we are going to the Big House to watch together as a class makes everything way more enjoyable for the weekend; to be able to at least get some remnants of what I witnessed years ago with my sister." Her family plans to host a streaming party from their home in Detroit.

As an academic year like no other comes to an end, colleges and universities are celebrating their graduates in a variety of ways. Some schools, like the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech are hosting multiple smaller, in-person ceremonies to comply with social distancing mandates. Others, like Iowa State, are hosting large ceremonies in football stadiums and outdoor arenas. There's also a handful that are doing virtual-only again, like the University of Washington and Portland State University. At some schools, including the University of Michigan and Emmanuel College in Boston, in-person events are restricted to just graduates; family and friends have to watch from a livestream.

For lots of students, the effort to be in-person is greatly appreciated. "You work hard those four years, you dream of that day, getting to graduate in-person and walk across the stage," says Jamontrae Christmon, a graduating senior at Tennessee State University in Nashville. For most of the year he assumed graduation would be virtual. He even sent out his graduation announcements to friends and family — and left the date off. Weeks later, he learned TSU would actually hold a May 1st in-person ceremony in the football stadium.

"I haven't been sleeping much this week at all. I'm just happy. Excited," says Christmon.

But planning for an event in an ongoing public health emergency has proven to be stressful. Steve Bennett, the chief of staff for academic affairs at Syracuse University, has worked to create commencement ceremonies that are as close to a normal year as possible.

"This may be the single most challenging special event that our team has put together, maybe ever," explains Bennett. "And it's because we keep having to plan towards a moving target."

Syracuse's plan for graduation is to have multiple smaller commencement ceremonies in their stadium; everyone in attendance has to be fully vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. According to state guidance, the stadium can only reach 10 % capacity, so graduates are limited to two guests per person. Despite the restrictions, the team that planned the ceremonies is determined to make it one that the class of 2021 deserves.

"The students have been through a lot this year. Graduating seniors lost a number of student experiences due to pandemic conditions that are important to them," says Bennett. That's why having the in-person component was essential. "It was really important to the university, given [the seniors'] commitment to us, that we have a commitment to them."

At California Lutheran University, in Thousand Oaks, Calif., graduation will be celebrated as a drive-in style event at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Each graduate can bring one carful of people to the fairgrounds parking lot, which can accommodate up to 700 vehicles. Inspired by the city's drive-in concert events, there'll be a stage with speakers and a jumbo screen.

"That's ultimately what led us to our decision to have it at the fairgrounds. Since it's a drive-in and they're staying in their cars, they were allowed to bring family... that was just really important to us," says Karissa Oien, who works in academic affairs at California Lutheran University and is the lead organizer for the drive-in commencement. She's been planning the university's ceremonies for 13 years, and knows how important graduation can be — not just for students, but for those who helped them along the way as well.

"We wanted to have that moment again. Where the families can see their students cross the stage and be there with them."

Jamontrae Christmon, the graduating senior from Tennessee State University, will have his parents, an uncle and one of his sisters there with him at Hale Stadium. "It's just something about your parents being there," says Christmon, "you want to look into the audience and maybe see your parents and you hear them scream your name when they call your name to walk across the stage."

As the day gets closer, Christmon says he's been thinking about the moments of self-doubt he had along the way. "I could have easily said 'I'm not cut out for college' and just gave up, but I didn't." He says his family was a big part of that motivation.

"Not many in my family even attended college, let alone graduated. So this is a big deal," says Christmon. "To me it means I broke the cycle. And that's what they always wanted."

He expects his mother will cry, and likely, he will too.

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