The COVID Commencement
Making Virtual Graduation Ceremonies Meaningful
Virtual congratulations are in order. This spring, thousands of history students completed their bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees under unusual circumstances. COVID-19 and the social distancing required to control the pandemic meant that commencement ceremonies were cancelled, postponed indefinitely, or held in-person with a large supply of face masks and chairs placed six feet apart. But final decisions about how commencement would look were often slow to come. As colleges and universities weighed what they knew about COVID-19 against what they didn't, history departments began planning their own celebrations.
The planning began with a simple but ambitious goal. History departments wanted to give their graduating students a celebration as meaningful as those from previous years, while working within the limitations of virtual platforms. For department chair Jennifer McNabb (Univ. of Northern Iowa), the celebration carried personal and professional significance. After forming close relationships with their students over the years, faculty members wanted to give them a full celebration. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), academic advisor Stefan Djordjevic wanted to make sure that “the virtual celebration of the graduating class would not be a sub-par online copy of a traditional convocation ceremony, but rather something unique.”
Departments first turned to video conferencing software like Zoom and Webex. The University of Northern Iowa (UNI) used Zoom to recreate an in-person convocation. The celebration began with a welcome and congratulatory speech from the department head and college dean. Individual recognition of each graduate and a recorded message from secretary of the Smithsonian Institution Lonnie Bunch followed. Bunch’s video, made in coordination with the AHA and later distributed to member institutions for optional reuse, encouraged students to continue learning history to better understand the world we live in. In between the recognition of graduates and Bunch’s message, the university’s tradition of in-person applause made its way into the celebration. Faculty at UNI would typically give the graduating class a 20-minute standing ovation as they make their way to the graduation stage, beginning once the first student walks past the assembled faculty and continuing until the final graduate arrives at the stage. This time, McNabb described the tradition to attendees before unmuting microphones. She then invited the faculty to join in a lengthy round of remote applause. At the University of Mississippi, department chair Noell Wilson wanted to give her students’ celebration an extra touch. She delivered miniature bottles of champagne or sparkling juice to colleagues’ and students’ homes for everyone to toast during the Zoom celebration.
Departments found that virtual celebrations afforded them opportunities that would otherwise be impossible or difficult to come by.
Departments also found ways to extend celebrations beyond Zoom or Webex. They used video technology and social media platforms to bring commencement to those unable to attend the live portion of the celebration. Live calls were recorded and subsequently uploaded to YouTube or Facebook. As part of its celebration for undergraduates, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) created a virtual booklet. Graduating seniors were asked to submit their photographs along with a message, which were later compiled into a celebratory booklet and distributed as a PDF. Similarly, the history department at UNI used Facebook posts to spotlight its graduating seniors. The posts were comprehensive. They included “students’ names, hometowns, quotes about favorite experiences studying history at UNI, photos, and more,” said McNabb. As these posts were uploaded, the department’s Facebook page received more than five thousand likes and shares.
At times, planning a virtual celebration proved challenging. Faculty at UMBC were at once working remotely, teaching online courses, and planning a virtual celebration, often all for the first time. But the hard work paid off. Many people pitched in, including students who were not graduating this year. Djordjevic attributed UIUC’s success to the video editing skills of an undergraduate assistant, Tess O’Connell. Celebrations came together, and those involved in the planning bonded over the process. In some cases, attendance was higher than anticipated, especially among faculty. The University of Mississippi’s celebration drew in faculty who did not work closely with any of the graduating students, some who had moved to other institutions, and some who were on sabbatical.
With travel and lodging no longer prerequisites, virtual celebrations also made commencement ceremonies more accessible to family members. Wilson observed that in the University of Mississippi’s case, “the students’ family/relatives turnout was more robust than I think it might have been for an on campus ceremony.”
Commencement 2020 looked and felt very different. But the sense of togetherness was not lost.
Beyond improving attendance, departments found that virtual celebrations afforded them opportunities that would otherwise be impossible or difficult to come by. “For most graduates, it was their relationships with individual faculty and fellow students that defined their time at the University of Illinois,” said Djordjevic. The nature of this year’s celebration allowed UIUC to highlight these relationships and bring faculty and student voices to the foreground. Faculty and graduating students were invited to record audio or video messages, or send in written ones and photos to be featured in a celebration video. In other years, according to Djordjevic, these voices are “typically overshadowed by guest speakers and administrators.” He plans to continue compiling these voices, messages, and photos for future celebrations.
Commencement suggests excitement and pageantry: perfectly lined up chairs, music, and the cap and gown. Commencement 2020 looked and felt very different. But the sense of togetherness was not lost. Department chair Amy Froide (UMBC) described her department’s ceremony as “very amateur, but sincere,” with what would have been a peculiar sight six months ago: students at home with family, on a video call with professors in their own homes, wearing sweatpants and tending to their children.
Finally, on behalf of Perspectives, congratulations to all the graduating historians of 2020. You did it, and you did it in a way that no class before you has done. You finished your degree while social distancing. You got your professors and advisors to deliver miniature beverages, learn video techniques on the fly, and celebrate your accomplishments in their sweats. We wish you the best.
Karen Lou is editorial assistant at the AHA.
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