UChicago is one of many universities across the country opting to hold this year’s convocation ceremonies virtually and have the programs span several days, a decision made in response to the spread of COVID-19.
“Given the current guidance from the CDC, other public health officials and our own faculty and physicians working on the forefront of the COVID-19 response, it is not practical or safe to proceed with planning an in-person gathering of several thousand people,” University President Robert Zimmer said in a message sent to the UChicago community on February 1.
UChicago has a long-standing tradition of holding a Convocation ceremony for its graduating students and their friends and family. Deriving from the Latin word “convocare,” which means “to come together,” the University’s Convocation gathers community members to celebrate the outgoing class. Since 1893, Convocation ceremonies have brought together all members of the UChicago community. This is typically done with a gathering of thousands of people.
However, this year—the University’s 534th Convocation ceremony—is the second consecutive year graduating seniors will participate in virtual ceremonies. The University is planning to provide a Convocation experience to their best abilities, depending upon safety guidelines. The main convocation will be virtual, but diploma ceremonies will be held in person. However, students will not be allowed to invite friends or family from outside the university community.
Since the Class of 2020 also will not have had a recreational Convocation ceremony, the University plans to explore ways to involve the Classes of 2020 and 2021 members in a conventional ceremony when safe to do so.
While UChicago has decided to hold their Convocation ceremony virtually this year, some universities, such as Texas Tech, have opted to offer an in-person option. Texas Tech held a graduation ceremony in-person on December 11, but also offered a virtual ceremony the following week. The in-person ceremony included several modifications to allow for social distancing, one of which restricted the number of guests allowed per student. The University of Mississippi will hold in-person commencement events in two separate intervals, each spanning over multiple days. The first interval of commencement exercises will be held April 29 to May 2, with the convocation ceremony on May 1. The second interval is slated for May 6-8, with the convocation ceremony on May 8. Having ceremonies span several days is a pattern seen at several universities, and these are some of the first in-person events at universities since the pandemic began.
Other universities are opting to host their Convocation ceremonies completely virtually. Loyola University, located in Chicago, IL, announced in November that they will not be hosting an in-person ceremony for the Class of 2021. Loyola is opting for a virtual graduation model, which includes five days of ceremonies. Separate ceremonies designated for different schools will occur throughout the commencement week. The University of Michigan announced their commencement ceremony will be in a virtual format, featuring synchronous content that also will be available for later viewing. They are working to provide virtual performances, utilize interactive elements, and host an inspirational main speaker. Furthermore, graduates that did not have an in-person commencement due to the pandemic are invited to attend and participate in any future commencement ceremony of their choice. UMich stated in their message that these students and their families will be honoured guests for their resilience.
The announcement of a virtual graduation led to some pushback from students at Loyola University. A graduating senior developed a petition to call for an open dialogue between graduating students and the administration and refund their graduation fees. The long-term goal is to make in-person graduation available to anyone who would like to partake. Petitions were a common way for students last spring to voice their thoughts, when students across the United States put together petitions and letters to university administrations to express the desire for an in-person ceremony.
Students at Butler University expressed their thoughts when the university announced a complete cancelation of 2020’s spring commencement ceremonies. Over two thousand students signed a petition asking for the ceremony to be rescheduled. Allie Moffet, a then-senior at Butler, started the petition to show the administration what walking across the stage meant to the seniors.
“Countless hours have gone into our Butler education, including those of happiness, struggles, laughs and possibly tears,” Moffet wrote on the petition site. “Butler is a family, and as such I’d imagine that many of us want to end our time here as a family. With the cancellation of our Spring 2020 commencement ceremony due to the coronavirus, we will not be able to share that sense of comradery we’ve all dreamt of since starting at Butler.”
Students at Georgetown University penned an open letter to their administration in March 2020, which has acquired over one thousand signatures. In the letter, they urged the administrators to postpone the commencement, rather than cancel or hold it in a virtual format.
“For the past four years, Georgetown has been our home and our community. Now, we ask you to honor that sense of community by allowing us the chance to come together one final time in celebration of our achievements and of the people that have supported us throughout this journey,” students said in the letter.
Georgetown University postponed the ceremony in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
When the pandemic altered the graduation plans for the Class of 2020, many students across the nation expressed their thoughts to their administration. It is so far unknown how the US Class of 2021 will respond to Convocation ceremony plans. Based upon what happened last spring, students may create petitions advocating for in-person ceremonies again. However, cancelation, postponement, or a modification to in-person ceremonies was likely always an inevitability.
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