Mega-graduations celebrate the classes thwarted by COVID-19

When Shannon Lynch Albritton graduated from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, NM, in May 2020, he participated in a virtual commencement, like many seniors who completed college during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Now it’s finally Albritton’s chance to walk across the stage.

The 24-year-old graduate student at George Washington University is driving from his home in Washington, DC, to New Mexico to attend his rescheduled 2020 commencement in person with his classmates, many of whom he hasn’t seen since St. John’s shifted to online learning in the middle of their senior spring.

Albritton said an in-person commencement was important to him and his friends because their class was so small—about 80 students.

“St. John’s College is a tight community, and we did a lot together,” Albritton said. “So I think having this in-person closure with all of the pomp and circumstance is meaningful. It’s a big difference from graduating on-screen.”

Natasha Chin, executive assistant to the president and office manager at St. John’s, said the college promised the Class of 2020 that they would have an in-person commencement once it was safe enough to do so. Now that it is, the Class of 2020 will join the Class of 2022 next month for a joint graduation ceremony; the Class of 2021 was not invited, since they had a hybrid commencement last year, which students could attend virtually or in person. st. John’s College president Nora Demleitner will be this year’s commencement speaker.

“The Class of 2020 is coming back this year for our May 21 graduation, and we’re so pleased because half of the class has RSVP’d yes,” Chin said, noting that 38 graduates from 2020 are planning to return. “So it’s been two years, but it looks like a lot of alumni are actually making the trip back to Santa Fe.”

They are welcome to wear the cap and gown mailed to them two years ago, Chin said, or anything else they wish.

Albritton said his mom, dad and stepmom are flying out for the event—fewer guests than he initially planned for his 2020 commencement.

When in-person graduation was canceled two years ago, Albritton said he and his classmates understood why. They were more disappointed that they couldn’t participate in long-standing senior traditions—including the senior dinner, when soon-to-be graduates share a meal with their professors.

This year, they will finally get the opportunity. st. John’s is hosting two senior dinners: one for the Class of 2020 and one for the Class of 2022, Chin said.

The returning graduates are just grateful that the college kept its word.

“Some students—myself included—were skeptical that an in-person graduation was even going to happen ever,” Albritton said. “On the other hand, I’ve at least tried to take a silver lining from graduating in 2020, which is it’s unlike any other graduation that the college has ever had.”

A First for Everyone

After enduring the strangest college experience in modern history—Zoom seminars, dining hall takeout, masked dorm mates, nasal swabs in the student center—the classes of COVID are finally getting the on-campus graduation ceremonies they were denied. Institutions from Loyola University Chicago to the University of Oregon are gearing up to celebrate the Classes of 2020 and sometimes 2021—as well as 2022—with carefully orchestrated commencement rituals, speeches and activities.

Colleges are approaching these mega-graduations in a variety of innovative ways. Some, such as Antelope Valley College and the University of Pittsburgh, are holding separate ceremonies for the different classes on different days; Others are lumping graduates of multiple classes together by major or degree. Some, including St. John’s College as well as Cape Cod Community College, will share a single commencement speaker, while other institutions, including Tufts University, have invited separate speakers or honorary degree recipients for each ceremony.

Holding a single graduation is challenging enough for many institutions; figuring out how to accommodate two or even three classes and their families presents logistical hurdles that few have ever dealt with before, from parking and accommodations to catering and staffing. Like the COVID-19 pandemic itself, it’s uncharted territory, but graduates and institutions alike are just thankful to be back.

“Commencement is, frankly, for our campus community, one of the most magical, exciting times for everyone because it’s just a joy-filled event,” said Teresa Trombetta, assistant vice president of alumni and constituent engagement at Carnegie Mellon University. “So for us to be able to reconnect our graduates from the past couple of years with our current graduates and to bring their families in and to have that moment of celebration with all of us together, it’s a real honor.”

At Carnegie Mellon’s campus in Pittsburgh, graduates from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 will join those from the Class of 2022 in three different ceremonies the weekend of May 13 to 15. They will be divided not by graduating class but by degree conferred—bachelor’s, master’s or doctorate. Actor Billy Porter will address the bachelor’s degree recipients from all three classes; Portugal’s minister for science, technology and higher education, Manuel Heitor, will address the master’s candidates; and chemistry Nobel laureate Frances Arnold will address the doctoral graduates.

The makeup ceremony fulfills a promise Carnegie Mellon made to the students who couldn’t have a “normal” graduation, said Trombetta. The Class of 2020 had a virtual-only commencement, and the Class of 2021 had a student-only commencement, which no families or guests were allowed to attend, she said.

“I won’t lie—those were really tough decisions to make and decisions that we didn’t make lightly, of course, because we know how important commencement is to our students and to their families,” Trombetta said. “So during that time, we made a commitment to those graduates that we would bring them back to celebrate their commencement, so that they could do it the way they would have in normal times.”

Trombetta said Carnegie Mellon expects to host 6,000 graduates from all three classes, about half of whom are returning alumni from 2020 and 2021. She said all told, the university expects 24,000 guests to attend graduation weekend.

Since it’s not feasible to call out every graduate’s name during the three commencements, each school will also hold a ceremony to hand out diplomas. And graduates from the Classes of 2020 and 2021 will look the part: they were directed to a website to buy caps and gowns that were mailed to their homes in advance, Trombetta said.

Other institutions are holding separate graduations. American University in Washington, DC, is hosting a special joint commencement for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 on May 21; Members of the Class of 2022 will receive their diplomas on the same day but at smaller ceremonies held for each school.

About 450 graduates from the combined Classes of 2020 and 2021 have signed up to attend the in-person commencement, and each will receive at least four guest tickets, said Lisa Arakaki, special assistant to the office of American’s president. While students who graduated university last December were able to have a normal commencement, the had a virtual commencement in 2020—for both May and December graduates—and a student-only commencement in May 2021.

“We didn’t feel like we gave them the full ceremony,” Arakaki said. “Some students were still asking for that experience. So for this May, now that we’re back to pretty much normal ceremonies, we’ve invited both of those groups to come back for an actual ceremony.”

Arakaki said students who missed out have continued asking for an in-person experience.

“After May 2020, those graduates—what we were hearing from them is ‘Don’t forget about us,'” Arakaki said. “And I feel like we really haven’t, because almost every semester, we’ve tried to do something to sort of honor them.”

The graduates can buy caps and gowns from American University, but Arakaki said they’re optional. Most of the graduates she’s spoken to are excited to return.

“I think it’s a little bit of closure for them,” Arakaki said. “They felt like they didn’t really get to celebrate. I’m hoping the alums will take it as an opportunity to have many reunions … It feels great for me to close the book on that group and give them the opportunity to have a full-fledged award.”

Big-Name Speakers

American University has invited multiple speakers to its commencement this year. CBS News senior White House and political correspondent Ed O’Keefe will address the Classes of 2020 and 2021. Other speakers scheduled to appear at the smaller Class of 2022 ceremonies include World Trade Organization director general Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala at the School of International Service, climate change leader Gina McCarthy at the College of Arts and Sciences, and NFL broadcaster James Brown at the joint ceremony for the School of Communication and the School of Education.

To be sure, the multitude of graduation ceremonies this year has created extra demand for speakers and honorary degree recipients. Among the more notable commencement speakers scheduled to appear are President Joe Biden at the University of Delaware, Dr. Anthony Fauci at Princeton University and the University of Maryland at Baltimore, and Apple CEO Tim Cook at Gallaudet University.

But perhaps none has generated more buzz than New York University’s speaker for the Class of 2022, pop icon Taylor Swift. Some super Swift fans are even begging NYU students to sell them their commencement tickets.

NYU will host two commencements at Yankee Stadium: one for the Class of 2022 and another for the Classes of 2020 and 2021. Both will take place on May 18, with one in the morning and one in the evening. Disability rights activist Judith Heumann will address the Classes of 2020 and 2021.

Sonia Chen, who graduated in 2020, will be attending her class’s ceremony this year. She said having a virtual graduation in 2020 was painful, considering how abruptly the pandemic started.

“Graduating online was like a huge lack of closure,” Chen said. “We all left for spring break, thinking that we were going to see each other after, and it never happened. So it was really profound.”

However, Chen isn’t especially excited to return and said she’s “over it.” She already lives in New York City, and she’s about to start graduate school, which means she’ll have another commencement in the future. Most of her fellow graduates coming back for commencement live in New York as well, so it’s easy for them to attend. Chen acknowledged they were all feeling pretty ambivalent about the whole thing.

“I’m detached from it,” Chen said. “I would say I’m doing this mainly for my parents, because I’m the only child and the first generation who graduated from an American university.”

Chen understands why NYU couldn’t send her class off with a big celebration in 2020, but she thinks the university could do more to honor the Classes of 2020 and 2021 now. For example, she wishes there wasn’t a combined ceremony, and that the makeup commencement speaker was as famous as Swift.

“I don’t wish they did more in 2020 because there wasn’t much they could do,” Chen said. “This year, it just sort of feels like we’re not getting as much attention as we originally would have gotten if COVID hadn’t happened.”

Leave a Comment