The post-Covid future for graduation

Paul Greatrix investigates arrangements for 2021 graduation ceremonies.

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

The pandemic has had a huge impact on every aspect of university life. When graduations were postponed for the class of 2020 everyone hoped that by the summer of 2021 things might be back to normal and we’d be able to catch up and offer the right kind of celebration for everyone.

Online celebrations have been great and, as noted here last year, we had some really creative offerings including a Minecraft campus recreation and robot ceremonies too.

We are though going to be in a rather similar position in 2021. Although the government roadmap out of the pandemic does anticipate opportunities for public gatherings and events this summer it remains a very uncertain timeline. Graduation events take a huge amount of planning at the best of times in order to ensure the high quality experience that students and their families and friends expect.

Beyond health and safety issues and the need to minimise risks for all and the anxieties of many the restrictions on international travel would inevitable mean that many students and their supporters would find it extraordinarily difficult to attend, diminishing the experience for all.

Most universities it seems are therefore taking the difficult decision to postpone ceremonies further, to late 2021 or into 2022.

Going rogue

Some students are not entirely happy with this and are taking matters into their own hands such as this group at the University of Tampa:

Graduating seniors at the University of Tampa are fundraising for and planning their own in-person graduation ceremony after the university decided it will offer a virtual commencement this spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Axios reported.

The students started a petition for the university to have an in-person event, which was signed by about 3,500 people as of Thursday evening. They also created a GoFundMe page, where they are raising funds to pay for a graduation venue and livestreaming technology, according to Axios.

Will we see this kind of rogue graduation in the UK with students organising their own events in the absence of formal university ones? I hope not.

Drive-Thru Degrees

I was really interested to learn that last year Johnson C. Smith University in a particularly creative approach organised a drive through graduation:

Keisha Wilson, the university’s registrar, organized time for graduating students in the Charlotte area to pick up their degree as well as their cap and gown, as the COVID-19 pandemic pushed commencement exercises from May 17 to Oct. 28 as part of homecoming week. The rescheduled commencement honoring 271 graduates will take place at Bojangles’ Coliseum.

JCSU President Clay Armbrister presented degrees today in a drive-thru ceremony outside Biddle Hall. Graduates who were unable to attend will be mailed their diplomas.

Stepping up to the plate

Meanwhile the Chronicle reports that more universities in the US are pressing ahead with plans for in person events this summer. The University of South Florida is intending to hold its 2021 ceremonies at Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays Major League Baseball team. The graduates, who will attend in groups as large as 2,000, will only be allowed two guests each, spread out among the stadium’s 43,000 seats apparently.

Others are not going to the ball park:

At Widener University, in southeast Pennsylvania, students who want more than a virtual commencement can choose between mini-graduations and drive-through ceremonies.

“We’re giving students as much choice and agency as possible to choose the format that’s best for them,” said Katie Herschede, vice president for strategic initiatives and chief of staff at Widener. Widener is also allowing 2020 graduates to participate in this year’s ceremonies, she said.

Widener is also offering a drive-through ceremony that allows each graduate to invite two cars to take a brief driving tour of the campus:

…with a stop in front of the historic Old Main building to walk across a stage, hear their name called, and get a photo before returning to their vehicle. About a quarter of the graduates are choosing this option, Herschede said, and some are even renting open-air trolleys to make the event more festive.

And over at Prairie View A&M University’s graduation things are going to be sort of normal but there are going to be two different stages:

one stage will have the president’s party and another stage is for students to walk across — without a handshake or photo opportunity. The university is still working out the details but plans to have a photographer elsewhere so graduates can get a picture in their gowns and caps, said Carol Campbell, executive director of university special events and protocol.

It’s therefore going to be another strange year for graduations with some unusual arrangements in the US and mainly online celebrations in the UK. One thing’s for sure though, 2022 is going to be a bumper year for gown hire, photographers and florists.

One response to “The post-Covid future for graduation

  1. Many of these US approaches come out of high school graduations, which are very important events in people’s lives. It can be pulled off with some creativity. My nephew just graduated from high school and he was given a 5 minute time slot with his parents. He came in one side of the auditorium and collected his diploma from a table on the stage as the principle said a few words about his achievements and school career with the event being videoed (and livestreamed) for posterity. Then, the party of 3 left by the opposite exit as the next 5 minute slot came in. Sounds a lot like the routine for covid vaccines, and it worked pretty well.

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