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

Apr 30, 2021
Originally published on May 3, 2021 5:46 pm

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.

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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It is college graduation season again after an academic year that looked like no other. Last year, most ceremonies were canceled or online only. This year, some colleges have found creative ways to celebrate in person. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now.

Hey, Elissa.


CHANG: So give us a sense of what graduation looks like this year.

NADWORNY: Well, it's quite a range. So some schools are doing virtual only again, so everybody watches a link online. The University of Michigan was originally going to be virtual only but ended up inviting just graduates to come watch together in the stadium, which happens to be the largest in the nation.

Senior Jasmine Williams was there in what they call the Big House this weekend with her friends.

JASMINE WILLIAMS: Just feeling the energy of everybody once this fight song came on and being able to sing it together one last - in a year and a half of, like, limiting expectations, it definitely exceeded the ones that I did have.

NADWORNY: Her family - many of them graduated from Michigan themselves - held a Zoom party and watched it from home.

CHANG: Aw. OK, so Michigan was, like, a hybrid situation, but then there are a lot of schools holding actual in-person events, right?

NADWORNY: That's right. Some large universities, like the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech, are hosting a bunch of smaller ceremonies to comply with social distancing. Others, including Iowa State, are hosting large ceremonies in football stadiums or outdoor arenas. Most are limiting the number of people who can attend. They're spacing graduates out. Some are encouraging vaccines or have COVID-19 testing requirements. And the planning for this has been really a challenge because graduations are huge events.

CHANG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: And planning begins months ago. I talked with Steve Bennett, who oversees Syracuse University's commencement, about this.

STEVE BENNETT: This may be the most challenging special event that our special events team have put together maybe ever. And it's because we keep having to plan towards a moving target.

NADWORNY: So Syracuse is planning to have multiple smaller ceremonies in their stadium. Everyone must be fully vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

CHANG: OK. And I understand that you came across some ideas that were a little outside-of-the-box. Tell us about those.

NADWORNY: Well, my favorite is California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Their graduation will be celebrated as a drive-in style event at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. So every graduate brings a carful of people, and you actually tune your radio - your car radio to hear the event.

CHANG: I love it. It sounds so old-fashioned, like a whole (laughter) carload of family and friends. It's kind of cool and intimate.

NADWORNY: Totally, and that's, like, what graduation is about. It's more about friends and family, the support network than even the graduate. I've been staying in touch with Jamontrae Christmon. He's a senior at Tennessee State University in Nashville. And TSU had their in-person ceremony at the football stadium on Saturday. Here's Jamontrae.

JAMONTRAE CHRISTMON: It was different. Everybody had on their masks. The seats were kind of more spread out. I couldn't have everybody there that I wanted to, but I will take that any day of the week over having it on Zoom.

NADWORNY: Not many people in his family had even gone to college, let alone graduated. And so Saturday was a big deal in his family. His parents, his uncle, his sister - they were all there at Hale Stadium with him.

CHRISTMON: When I got on the stage and they said, Jamontrae Christmon - and I could just hear my family just scream. You just heard them over everybody (laughter). And it kind of brought tears to my eyes to think, like, I promised my parents that I was going to do this, and I did it.

CHANG: Wow. That is so awesome. That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education for NPR.

Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Oh, you bet. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.