Virtual commencements put the graduate back in graduation.
By Kate Shipley Richey
Unprecedented times call for unprecedented adjustments, which has led countless colleges and universities to cancel, postpone, or replace their regularly scheduled commencement ceremonies with virtual commencement events. As these institutions scrap months, if not years, of planning, university officials and other curious observers wonder how to replicate the grand scale of a university-wide commencement through a small, two-dimensional screen. The first wave or two of these virtual commencements are already completed, and the results have left me thinking that perhaps this shift is the best thing to happen to commencement since universities started graduating students in the tens of thousands.
Modern graduation ceremonies are marked by pomp and circumstance (literally, “The Graduation March” played at nearly every graduation is from a set of six orchestral marches by Sir Edward Elgar called the “Pomp and Circumstance Marches.”). Consider for a moment the key markers of a large, university graduation: caps and gowns, faculty robes, college insignia and flags, presidential remarks, notable speakers, salutes to alma mater, and university songs. These traditional cues of graduation are flashy, celebratory, and leave no room for the individual students graduating. The only time a student might be individually recognized during such large ceremonies is when their name is called or shown on a large screen or jumbotron. In these moments, all other students’ names become a hassle—a traffic jam to sit through until your graduate’s name is called. University commencements have become so large, so focused on celebration of the institution, that the students who make up that institution are overlooked and soon forgotten.
Graduation reviews and highlights speak of graduates in collective terms—the Class of 2020, the graduating class, graduates of X University. Re-shared videos highlight the university president, famous alumni, or expensive graduation speakers. What about the stories of the students who just spent four (or more) years studying, working, and paying for this achievement? For so many, this is a truly momentous occasion (no doubt what encouraged such a large celebration, in the first place), but there seems to be little room for the stories of individual graduates within a modern graduation.
Until the spring of 2020, when the COVID-19 crisis forced the format of large-scale graduations to change.
Let’s keep an eye on our social media feeds this month. Sure, we’ll still see sound bites from Oprah, Tim Cook, Tom Hanks, and other famous commencement speakers. We’ll still see university presidents and faculty decked out in their regalia, but we’ll also see something new—something that had been nearly invisible until ALL graduations were forced online. We’ll see universities featuring their students as they celebrate the accomplishment that is a college degree. We’ll see students posing at home, in their yards, in front of their houses, in a favorite local spot—even in their rooms. They’ll be wearing caps, gowns, jeans, university tees, and whatever else makes them feel special without being dictated by the formality of circumstance. We’ll see families (and in some cases the universities themselves) bringing or sending their favorite paraphernalia home: university yard signs, banners, sweatshirts, mascot stuffed animals. We’ll see each individual smiling face in a way that we haven’t before unless we followed this person on our own private feeds.
Virtual commencement has forced the University to refocus attention onto the students, the graduates. The focus is now on the fact that it is a big, big deal to: complete the required coursework while working to pay tuition; to be the first in your family to attend university; to study, work, and raise children at the same time; to transfer three different times before finding a program that fits. It’s a big deal to graduate. Did colleges and universities provide space and resources for that to happen? Yes, absolutely (it’s also literally their mission and their role to create those opportunities), but it’s the graduates that sealed the deal. The graduates set their priorities, did the work, paid the bills, and it’s the graduates who should get the accolades.
So many of us are so accustomed to the traditional, large scale commencement. At first it seemed unfortunate to not be able to replicate such a large celebration this year. After seeing what has unfolded from this opportunity, however, I think smaller might be better in some very important ways. We now have the space to learn what it took for these graduates to get to the finish line. Their individual stories are being told in a more personal, intimate way than ever before. The University is being personalized through a focus on the individuals within its community. For that reason, graduating in the spring of 2020 might be a more meaningful send-off than any of us imagined.