Commencement ’20: College Graduations During a Pandemic

In-person ceremonies have been postponed due to the coronavirus.

Clockwise from top left: The University of Notre Dame, Franciscan University of Steubenville and Thomas Aquinas College are among those colleges changing their commencement plans amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Clockwise from top left: The University of Notre Dame, Franciscan University of Steubenville and Thomas Aquinas College are among those colleges changing their commencement plans amid the coronavirus pandemic. (photo: Unsplash, Franciscan University of Steubenville, Thomas Aquinas College )

As the academic year draws to a close, colleges and universities are striving to acknowledge the achievements of the graduating class of 2020 while also abiding by government orders that prohibit gatherings, such as traditional commencement ceremonies. 

Most colleges canceled in-person classes over a month ago and shortly afterward sent their students home. Although classes and exams continue remotely, most end-of-the-school-year traditions are impossible.

Catholic colleges are taking a variety of approaches toward commencement. Some have rescheduled ceremonies for months after the conclusion of the academic year, while others are hesitating to commit to a date, afraid that even a rescheduled ceremony would have to be further postponed. Some schools are incorporating an online ceremony into this year’s graduation, although the majority of seniors would prefer an in-person event.

The Catholic University of America polled the class of 2020 and found “there was a strong preference for an in-person commencement,” John Garvey, CUA’s president, said in a letter to the seniors. “We agree, though given the current lockdowns in our area, we don’t want to set a date that we will later need to adjust. ... Our hope is to hold commencement during the summer.”

“The whole thing is upsetting, but we know it’s not really the school’s fault,” Ann Vogel, a senior at CUA, told the Register, acknowledging the Washington, D.C., government restrictions. “The school knows that we want an in-person graduation because we’re a smaller school with a closer-knit student body. I think they’re going to try and do everything they can, but it’s not up to them right now.” 

Vogel said that her family will celebrate her graduation over Memorial Day weekend, along with her twin sister’s graduation from St. John’s University, since neither sister’s university has scheduled a commencement ceremony.

 

Notre Dame

University of Notre Dame senior Nicholas Marr used to think that graduations were overrated. “I guess you don’t really know a good thing until it’s gone, because it just hit me last week how it’s really disappointing that we don’t get to have graduation and my family can’t be there.” 

He and his roommates in South Bend had been planning a party for after the commencement ceremonies. “We were going to have a big graduation party at our house and have all the families there and get to see everyone and celebrate what really has been an amazing four years.”

Marr has no plans to celebrate his graduation this year, but feels fortunate to have already been hired by the Federalist Society. “I've been really lucky to be able to go through an interview process and actually get a job in the last month,” he said, “especially at a time when so many people are out of work. I’ve also been lucky enough to get a job where I can start working remotely so I’m working a couple hours a week while classes finish up.”

Notre Dame will hold an online degree-conferral ceremony this May 17, but has rescheduled the traditional commencement ceremonies for the class of 2020 for May 2021. 

“I’m looking forward to next year,” Marr said. “One of my roommates and one of my best friends is in the architecture program, so he’s on a five-year track, not a four-year track. So we kind of do get to graduate with him in a way, and that’s nice.”

 

Steubenville

Franciscan University of Steubenville has rescheduled its commencement exercises for Aug. 14-15, the last weekend before freshmen orientation. Feedback from students suggested that an in-person ceremony some time before the fall — when new jobs or graduate studies might prevent students from returning to campus — was preferable to a ceremony scheduled online or later in the year.

Ann Dulany, who chairs the commencement committee as the director of graduation for Franciscan, acknowledged that government restrictions on large gatherings might still be in effect in August, but said that plans for commencement are going ahead anyway. “I don’t know that you could say we’re confident, but we’re hopeful,” Dulany said. “We’re very hopeful.”  

“We’re hoping to hold classes in the fall. So we thought that if we’re holding classes in the fall, let’s hope we can have a commencement ceremony. But we recognize that could change.”

“It was really important for us when we told our students that we had to postpone commencement for May that we gave them hope of a future,” Dulany said. “It was very painful for us to watch our seniors suffer in such a way. To simply say indefinitely we’re postponing — it takes away that hope of them actually being able to come back to campus someday to celebrate.”

Franciscan also recently announced a new program, “Step in Faith,” that will cover 100% of tuition — after scholarships and grants — for incoming on-campus undergraduates and will assist returning students in financial need. It also provides graduates with $500. 

“We really want to love on our students and make sure that they know we care about them,” Dulany said.

Valeria Barreto, a senior at Franciscan, says that, in some ways, the rescheduled August ceremonies work out better for her than May would have.

Barreto was just accepted into a master’s in business program at CUA and will start there the week after her graduation from Franciscan. 

“I absolutely think that Franciscan is doing an amazing job taking care of all the seniors and all the students in general,” Barreto said. “I always say this to people, ‘There’s no university like Franciscan.’ The type of care and love that comes from the administration, from the staff, from the school as a whole, is unlike any other. Throughout this whole pandemic, they’ve done an incredible job of communicating that care and that love for us.”

 

TAC

Thomas Aquinas College also polled its seniors, giving them several possible dates in the late summer and fall for various types of ceremonies. The most popular option is scheduling an in-person summer ceremony with the possibility of making it a graduates-only event, if the local and state governments permit a gathering of that size but continue to prohibit a larger event with friends and family. 

TAC’s California campus typically has around 80 graduates each year, while the New England campus has not yet had a graduation.

John Goyette, dean of Thomas Aquinas College, likened the possible graduates-only event to the graduation recently held at the Air Force Academy, “but without a flyover from the Thunderbirds.” He said that the idea of an online ceremony was “extremely unpopular” among the seniors.

“It’s looking like we will probably schedule an Aug. 8 graduation ceremony,” Goyette said, “and hope that government restrictions will ease up enough by then to allow this year’s graduating class to see each other again and celebrate their academic achievement.”

“Right before we left was a very sad time,” Hannah Gomez, a senior at TAC, described the abrupt departure from campus. “All the seniors were crying and hugging each other, thanking the tutors, because as a senior, that was it. You don’t get to come back. You don’t get to say, ‘Oh, there’s next year,’ because there is no next year anymore.” 

“We understand that they can’t really plan another ceremony for us because they don’t know when and if it’ll be okay and if we can actually come,” Gomez said. “They promised us right before we left that, whenever the celebration happens, they want to make it as normal as it would have been if we did it in May."

Gomez is engaged to be married to a TAC classmate and is planning a January wedding.

She said that her family is doing their best to celebrate her academic achievement. “My mom said they have every intention of when and if TAC has a rescheduled ceremony that they’ll pretend like that was my real graduation and invite everybody and make it a big deal.”

“This is a real graduation,” Tina Gomez, Hannah’s mother, said. “Of course, we were looking forward to a graduation Mass, and the ceremony, and then pictures of family afterwards and food. I don’t even care if it’s with next year’s graduating class and they smush the two together. In the meantime, she passed her thesis defense, and her diploma is going to come in with the date on it, May 16th, so that’s the graduation date.”

Both mother and daughter noted the difficulty of celebrating at home under the current restrictions. “You can’t really go anywhere; you can’t really invite people over,” Hannah said. “You can’t even go to a park or to the beach. The options are limited.”

“It’s such a special circumstance, and it was such a special class, I think most people would make an effort to come back whenever it is rescheduled,” Tina said. “Every time she says, ‘It’s canceled,’ I keep correcting her: ‘It’s been postponed.’”

But in the meantime? “Put me down for a livestream Mass, and we’ll eat whatever she wants for dinner.”

Mary Rose Short writes from California.

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