Michelle Kondrich for NPR
Michelle Kondrich for NPR
In Jasmine Williams’ family, graduation from the University of Michigan is a rite of passage. Her parents met on campus, and her older sister graduated from school a few years ago. She remembers sitting bundled up in the family department for this degree. “It was overwhelming to feel so proud of so many people,” she says. “I remember sitting there and watching them and that was probably the first time I said, ‘OK, yeah, I like that. I can’t wait to do this. ‘
This year, Williams’ own graduation will look a little different. The main ceremony for students will be virtual, although the university has done so invited the students to see this ceremony known as the Big House from the football stadium on campus. There are no family members present and students must have a negative COVID-19 test result to participate.
“I think it’s difficult not to downplay it when it’s zoomed out,” says Williams. But next Saturday she plans to put on her hat and dress and go to the stadium with friends. “Knowing that we’re going to the big house to watch together as a class makes the weekend a lot more enjoyable. At least getting some remnants of what I saw with my sister years ago.” Her family plans to host a streaming party from their Detroit home.
As an academic year comes to an end like no other, colleges and universities celebrate their graduates in a variety of ways. Some schools, like the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech, host several smaller in-person ceremonies to help comply with social distancing mandates. Others, like the State of Iowa, hold grand ceremonies in soccer stadiums and open-air arenas. There are also a handful that are again only working virtually, such as the University of Washington and Portland State University. Some schools, including the University of Michigan and Emmanuel College in Boston, allow in-person events only for graduate students. Family and friends have to watch from a live stream.
For many students, the effort to be personal is valued. “In those four years you work hard, dream about this day, graduate in person, and step on the stage,” said Jamontrae Christmon, a senior graduate from Tennessee State University in Nashville. For most of the year, he assumed the degree would be virtual. He even mailed his graduation announcements to friends and family – omitting the date. Weeks later, he learned that the TSU would actually hold a personal ceremony on May 1st at the football stadium.
“I haven’t slept much this week. I’m just happy. Excited,” says Christmon.
However, planning an event in an ongoing public health emergency has proven stressful. Steve Bennett, the chief of staff for academic affairs at Syracuse University, has worked to create opening ceremonies that come as close as possible to a normal year.
“This is possibly the most challenging special event our team has ever put together,” said Bennett. “And that’s because we have to keep planning towards a moving target.”
Syracuse’s plan for the close is to hold several smaller opening ceremonies at her stadium. Each participant must be fully vaccinated or have evidence of a recent negative COVID-19 test. According to government guidance, the stadium can only achieve a capacity of 10%, so the number of graduates is limited to two guests per person. Despite the limitations, the team that planned the ceremonies are determined to make them one that the class of 2021 deserves.
“Students have been through a lot this year. Graduates have lost a number of student experiences because of the pandemic conditions that are important to them,” says Bennett. So it was important to have the personal component. “It was really important to the university [the seniors’] Obligation to us that we have an obligation to them. ”
California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, California is celebrating graduation as a drive-in event at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. Each graduate can bring a car full of people to the parking lot of the exhibition grounds, which can accommodate up to 700 vehicles. Inspired by the city’s drive-in concert events, there will be a stage with speakers and a jumbo screen.
“That ultimately led us to our decision to have it on the exhibition grounds. Since it is a drive-in and they stay in their cars, they were allowed to bring family with them … that was just very important to us,” he says Karissa Oien who works on academic matters at California Lutheran University and is the primary organizer for the drive-in commencement. She has 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 with it.
“We wanted to have that moment again. Where families can see their students across the stage and be with them.”
Jamontrae Christmon, a Tennessee State University graduate, will have his parents, an uncle, and one of his sisters with him at Hale Stadium. “It’s just 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 go across the stage.”
As the day approaches, Christmon says he has pondered the moments of self-doubt he had along the way. “I could easily have said I wasn’t college grade 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 went to college, let alone graduated. So that’s a big deal,” says Christmon. “For me that means that I’ve broken the cycle. And that’s what they always wanted.”
He expects his mother to cry, and probably does too.