Commencement in the Time of Pandemic

When I was in graduate school, my campus was hit by a derecho, a storm involving sustained hurricane-force, straight-line winds of over 100 miles per hour. This was on the Friday of finals week, in May 2009. Power and water were out for a week. There was massive destruction over a swath from one side of southern Illinois to the other. At the precise moment the storm hit, a commencement ceremony for graduates of the College of Education was beginning. The rest of the campus’s ceremonies were set for the next day. Events were moved to August. You can and are now imagining what it takes to reschedule flights, car trips, hotel rooms and all the minutiae that go into a campus event, let alone one so all-encompassing of resources.

Many graduates did not come back for those ceremonies. And it’s hard to blame them. A lot of people who lived through the storm and the complete halt of daily life afterward suffered some lasting psychological trauma. Eleven years later you can still see some of that when people comment on weather forecasts local meteorologists post on Facebook. Some people were and still are bitter about decisions made in the aftermath, even though they knew it was no one’s fault, really. Swapping commencement for cataclysm leaves a bad taste. And there is something incredibly symbolic about starting a new chapter of one’s life at a moment that shows just how fragile some of the structures of our lives are.

The need for communal activities marking important moments doesn’t stop even when we have to remain separated. We might even need them more than ever. After the “May 8th Storm,” as it’s known locally, that meant gathering around battery-powered radios or at a grocery store that had refrigerated trucks for essentials. The human need for connection is one of our most important needs.

There’s been a lot of discussion about postponing commencements ceremonies or moving them online (or even into Minecraft) during the current pandemic. The need for rites of passage is a real one, one all humans have. And, really, our campuses need them, too.

Rites of passage are rituals that mark our aging or our assumption of new roles or responsibilities. In anthropology, we talk about three phases to these rites:

  • Separation, when you are removed from your daily space and role and are about to undertake the rite.
  • Transition, when the rite is in progress (also called liminality or being betwixt-and-between) and you are neither what you were before, nor what you will become.
  • Re-incorporation, when you are welcomed back into the community as a new type of person.

There are relatively few rites of passage in American society, especially if you are not particularly religious (though there are rituals that exist in particular communities). College commencements are rites that are less about age per se, and more about the move into independence and a new stage of achievement (for the sake of simplification, I am talking mostly about undergraduates in this piece). For traditional undergraduates, the vast majority of whom have been adults for a few years already, commencement marks that adulthood is about to get underway in earnest. For non-traditional students, it celebrates the decision to change direction and to thoroughly disrupt how one’s family and career were functioning beforehand. In all cases, it signals that the moment has arrived that the investment one has made in higher education should begin to repay itself.

That is a very superficial analysis of commencement ceremonies. By that I mean, it’s an explanation, but one that misses a lot of the social and emotional content of the event. Having to forego the usual ceremonies, with its ritual garments, music, and placement in arenas, auditoriums and stadiums may be felt as a profound loss, the loss of one of the moments students may have been expecting since their first graduation from pre-school or Kindergarten.

Graduating students are losing something they have earned during this crisis, and it’s not the degree. They have earned a moment of public recognition of their hard work and perseverance. They are losing the ability to say what may be final face-to-face good-byes with classmates and thank faculty and staff who are at the ceremony. They are losing the ability to take photos in regalia at iconic places around campus and to have a big reception afterward. They are also losing a massive moment of joint catharsis, releasing stress over exams and papers when they throw their caps in the air.

Moreover, they’ve lost the chance to progress through those three stages I mentioned above—being separated from the rest of the student body by donning the regalia and lining up to process in, being liminal as neither student nor graduate during dignitaries’ speeches, and then being reincorporated as a new kind of person—a college graduate—by receiving the diploma (or stand-in paper) during their walk across the stage and hearing the applause and cheers at the end of the ceremony. Graduates have in essence been reborn as new people. Rebirth is a profound proposition, providing almost limitless opportunity.

Graduation also matters at the familial level. Graduates embody their parents’ dreams. I can imagine the faces of so many students I know who are the first in their families to go to college, whose seat in my classroom was secured by the love and labor of their parents. They remind us all that going to college is a very precious experience, because we can also become blind to the beauty and wonder of the whole thing. Parents have worked perhaps their entire adult lives to see their children wear the cap and gown. This moment is inspiration for the other children in the family to imagine themselves in the same place. If we see college education as an American norm, this is how it becomes normalized—not just through attendance, but also through celebrating attainment. Finally, graduation is a time to express gratitude to families for their support and to students who did not squander their chances.

Without reminders, we forget to be grateful.

Commencement reminds campuses of that gratitude. There is so much to be thankful for: the discoveries students make, how students refresh faculty, staff and administrators with their persistence and excitement, and how higher education provides the chance to have conversations that simply can’t be had anywhere else. Graduation reaffirms the life and mission of the campus, allowing it to also be reborn anew, ready to tackle the next academic year in the fall.

But what does that actually look like now? The reality of this situation is that it is far longer lasting, traumatizing and transformative than the May 8 Storm that hit my campus. Some aspects of that crisis had resolved by the time the August ceremony happened. There was definitely months-long grumbling on social media about having to come back for a new ceremony—but there was also a lot of determination to be there. This was a singular activity to close the college chapter, and to show that students had developed two important characteristics we want to instill: resilience and persistence. No literal or figurative storm could stop these grads. In those ways, the rescheduled ceremonies were successes.

For those who were unable to come back, there may always be a sense of something unfinished or of unmet hopes.

There may be no fair exchange possible here, wherein many or most graduating students feel they are getting what they earned. And it’s okay to say that, and to investigate how to you can get closer to that fair exchange. As well, you should be using each avenue—social, portals, text, email or even [gasp] the phone—to ask what they want the campus to know about their experience. Are they interested in the design of something permanent that marks the occasion (this can include commemorative, permanent web sites including narratives and quotes from students)? Can you commemorate the story of your campus and give students space to contribute?  What symbols can be sent home with diplomas? How can diplomas reflect the rarity of the occasion? How can you help students see what is hopeful about the education, relationships, and skills to which you’ve guided them? How will you show them that they have reason to hope?

These conversations are invitations to the students and their families to remain engaged with the campus after graduation, to be active alumni and to convert to donors at some point. One of the reasons rites of passage matter is because they mark moments we can assert that while we constantly live with an unknowable future, we know this one thing works. “Normal” is an aspiration at this point, and it may not look like what it did in the past or when we will be able to say it has arrived. Use that particular lack of certainty as inspiration for thinking about how your redesigned commencement events can remind attendees that your campus remains a stable influence. Think about it this way: you are all very much dwelling in that liminal space right now, as people and as an institution. You need reincorporation as much as the graduates do. How would you like to be reborn as a resilient and persistent campus?

There is nothing to be lost by choosing the most humane and tender response you can muster. You’re not just doing this for graduating students and their families. You are doing this for the faculty and staff on your campus, and for yourself. When classes resume in the fall, in whatever guise that may be, you want the winds of a well-handled crisis to propel you.

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Aimee Hosemann

Aimee is a Writer at RHB.