Saving Commencement from a Pandemic Some Colleges, Universities Planning Virtual Ceremonies; Others Delaying Them until Fall

By Schackner, Bill | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 5, 2020 | Go to article overview

Saving Commencement from a Pandemic Some Colleges, Universities Planning Virtual Ceremonies; Others Delaying Them until Fall


Schackner, Bill, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


With some high-tech planning and old-fashioned luck, West Virginia University leaders hope to pull off a celebration next month that gives spring graduates at least a hint of how their college commencement should feel.

The school's gold and blue colors will be front and center, no doubt, and regalia will be worn. Selfies will be snapped and shared on social media by proud young adults celebrating a milestone.

Of course, none of that will happen inside the WVU Coliseum or other venues that normally host the university's 16 ceremonies. The halls might well be empty, because the whole event will be conducted online.

For millions of college students in the class of 2020, a pandemic that already stole their parting weeks on campus with friends seems poised to deliver one last cruel blow: reordering what it means to "cross the stage" and pick up a degree.

But schools nationally and in Pennsylvania are trying to minimize stinging disappointment felt by what some have dubbed "the corona class," a reference to the COVID-19 outbreak that drove spring classes online and sent students home. For weeks, campuses have puzzled over how best to rethink graduation, settling on varied approaches that continue to evolve.

Along with WVU's May 16 virtual celebration, named "Mountaineer Graduation Day," campus officials will host graduates on Dec. 19 for an in-person ceremony, saying they deserve to experience the real thing.

"I will be there ready to give each and every one of you the biggest hug possible," E. Gordon Gee, WVU's president, promised them in a note outlining the school's plans.

Other large public institutions such as the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University, Kent State University and the University of Michigan have postponed their ceremonies and will decide later when to reschedule.

Small private campuses like La Roche and Chatham universities are wrestling, too, with how to replace now-postponed events. Among schools that already have rescheduled in-person ceremonies, August and December are top picks, though some schools are inviting graduates to walk in future years' ceremonies.

Then there's Purdue University and what officials on the West Lafayette, Ind., campus are calling their "on-demand commencement."

Students already sent home to slow the virus's spread will receive a mailing with a diploma cover, a commencement program and any honor cord they earned, along with instructions on how to download a digital event they can watch with their families at their convenience.

To make it feel more real, recorded performances by Purdue Bands and other musical organizations will play, and students can select virtual campus backgrounds for their keepsake photos. Graduates "will hear their names called, hold their diplomas in their hands, wear a cap and gown," the school said in announcing the idea.

Short of the mark

Still, crushing disappointment isn't easily soothed. To some, remote ceremonies fall well short of the mark.

That's clear from online petitions that have sprouted in Ohio, New Jersey, California and other states, including one for students, parents and alumni from WVU.

"Walking across that stage was one of the best moments I had at WVU and singing Country Roads will be something I cherish forever," wrote Amanda Gerhard, who signed a petition to discourage WVU from forgoing its in-person commencement altogether.

Backlash over a March 18 decision by UCLA to hold a virtual commencement led the school the next day to step back and rethink its approach. Chancellor Gene Block apologized and said "we should have listened first" to students and parents.

One of those dissenting voices was Tara Ostad, organizer of an online petition that drew more than 10,000 signatures. "We did not work this hard to have an online graduation," she said.

Promising to hold an in-person commencement in the fall and a virtual celebration in the meantime, Duquesne University President Ken Gormley said nothing can replace an in-person ceremony. …

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