For four years, Maggie Lake imagined descending the majestic hill in the middle of her college campus with her classmates on commencement weekend. But she may need to wait a few more years. Colgate University’s 2020 in-person graduation has been rescheduled twice, this time to 2022.
The administration says they already held a virtual ceremony last May and delaying an in-person one allows alumni, including Ms. Lake, and their families to participate safely. But grads say the special moment is gone—and it feels odd to take time off work to attend your commencement. “We’re past the point of really caring,” says Ms. Lake, 22, an investment banking analyst in Chicago. “It’s kind of just done.”
For 2020 graduates—and their parents—there are plenty of hurt feelings when it comes to how universities handled graduation. In a WSJ analysis of 50 schools, all held virtual celebrations last year and 32% will offer in-person graduations this year; 56% still plan to reschedule a celebration. After students left campuses in March 2020 to finish classes remotely, many colleges promised in-person celebrations would follow. Grads say they have sat through listless virtual ceremonies, filled out surveys about possible events and witnessed the Class of 2021 take to the stage before them. Schools say the pandemic makes it difficult to stick to promised plans, requiring in-person celebrations to be rescheduled again and again. Many 2020 grads have moved on and few fondly recall a final semester that fizzled out on Zoom instead of culminating in caps and gowns. Down the line, that could dim alumni loyalty and donations.
“There aren’t any perfect solutions,” says Lynn Pasquerella, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a trade group. “With no handshakes and no hugs, it’s not going to be the experience that we hope for on college campuses.”
Higher-ed institutions also see commencements as a way to kindle alumni giving by creating that “institutional memory and sense of giving,” Dr. Pasquerella says. “The traditions that we have, including commencement, with its pomp and circumstance, are intended to create shared experiences that inspire people to give back.”
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Learning about commencement plans for the Class of 2021 opened a wound for many 2020 graduates promised a redo.
After seeing on social media that Barnard College’s 2020 commencement speaker, television host Christiane Amanpour, would be addressing the 2021 gathering, Apolline Jonckheere, a 2020 alumna, emailed the college with concerns that her class “will never receive the ceremony we deserve.”
Ms. Jonckheere, 23, a biotech analyst in New York, said an in-person commencement—with the speaker initially promised to the Class of 2020—would bring some closure, even if the gathering, which typically takes place at Radio City Music Hall in New York, was lower key. “I just wanted to know what is going on here. Do you guys still care about us?” she says.
Barnard, which is hosting a virtual commencement and a smaller in-person celebration for this year’s class, plans to invite 2020 graduates to hear Ms. Amanpour speak at the larger, online event. The college intends to hold an in-person 2020 graduation at a later time, a spokeswoman says.
The changes hit some parents harder than students. Jennifer O’Neal, of Austin, Texas, was devastated last spring when her daughter Natalie’s graduation from Texas State University was called off. Ms. O’Neal canceled the 75-person graduation party she had been planning for months. “I cried many tears about it, but she did pretty well,” Ms. O’Neal, 51, says of Natalie. In August, Texas State had a virtual graduation—which didn’t strike Ms. O’Neal as celebratory—and an in-person one in December, which Natalie didn’t attend.
Maureen Stiles, 57, says she was upset when her son Mac’s alma mater, the University of South Carolina, kept rescheduling the in-person commencement. “It sort of kept that hope alive and we were in this purgatory,” says Ms. Stiles, a freelance writer in Gaithersburg, Md. Ultimately, the school held a virtual celebration in August. The family was on vacation at the time and took a break from the beach to watch it. Next month, the University of South Carolina will host a “Recognition Ceremony” for the Class of 2020 a week after the Class of 2021 graduation. Ms. Stiles says her son isn’t attending due to work. “I’m OK with it. I’m at peace now,” she says. The grads already received their diplomas, but the school is holding the event “to make good on the President’s promise last May that we would invite 2020 graduates back for a recognition ceremony,” spokesman Jeff Stensland wrote in an email.
The pandemic makes it hard to fulfill promises for in-person events, schools say. At Howard University, 2020 graduates will be welcomed back in May for a combined ceremony with the Class of 2021. With outdoor gatherings in the District of Columbia limited to 50 people, the university applied for a waiver but expects just 20% of the 2020 class will attend, says Howard President
“We’re still discussing logistics,” Dr. Frederick says, amid severely curtailed pomp and circumstance. A 10-person limit on stage means a live choir is unlikely. There won’t be cheering crowds or a reception where 2020 graduates can mingle with alums from the 50-year reunion class.
In a survey at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, only 10% of members of the Class of 2020 said they are returning to the school in May for graduation. Officials say it was important to offer the in-person option, even if most of last year’s graduates won’t be there. “It’s not so much about the number, but about giving them the opportunity,” says Ted Pickerill, executive assistant to the university’s president. Students can bring six guests and will sit in pods during the ceremony in the school’s football stadium.
Others are eager to return. After learning last month that there will be an in-person graduation for Colorado College’s Class of 2020, Vi Nguyen decided to make the nine-hour drive with her mother and two younger siblings from Edmond, Okla., to Colorado Springs. Graduates are permitted just two guests, so Ms. Nguyen plans to plead for an extra ticket for her sister. As the first in her family to graduate from a U.S. university, not going because she was busy with work was out of the question, says Ms. Nguyen, 23. She lives at home but works in finance for a New York company and is the family’s main breadwinner. “I’m first-generation and graduation is an entire ceremony that we all celebrate,” she says.
Share Your Thoughts
If you are a member of the college Class of 2020—or the parent of one—how did you feel about virtual graduation ceremonies last year and whatever plans the school has for an in-person event? Join the conversation below.
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