A hold on commencements

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College leaders are focused on converting their in-person classes to remote learning, but how to handle commencement is on their minds, too.

A growing number of colleges are canceling or postponing their traditional graduation celebrations, which typically occur in May, until the summer or fall. Even colleges that are taking a wait-and-see approach are likely to cancel or postpone.

But many colleges are keenly aware that commencement is important to many students and their families. Celebrating the milestone is especially important for students who are the first in their families to earn a college degree or had to balance work and family life while completing their credential.

Among ideas floated to at least in the short term acknowledge and celebrate graduates’ accomplishments is to use technology. Some colleges are considering pre-recording speeches from college and student leaders and compiling them into a video. They also may ask students to submit brief video messages. Other colleges are mulling a live event on social media, where some of the speeches may be streamed online and viewers can post comments and photos. A few may even go old school and print a yearbook for this year’s graduating class.

Laramie County Community College (LCCC) in Wyoming will decide about its commencement — which on average includes 200 to 250 graduating students — no later than April 6, which is about a month from its scheduled celebration, said Lisa Trimble, the college’s associate vice president of institutional advancement. The college typically only holds a spring commencement, but it may opt for one in early December for spring graduates, she said.

LCCC is looking at remote ways to celebrate, but it wants to see if it can provide more than that, Trimble said.

“It’s so meaningful for students to celebrate the moment with their peers, to wave to their family when they walk in and to take pictures with the president,” she said.

Commencement offers many students closure to one part of their life and is a send-off to the next step, whether it’s continuing their education or entering the workforce, Trimble said.

Being hopeful

On Monday, the Community College of Rhode Island gave its students the bad news.

“I love our graduation. I love watching our graduates, their families, and so many of us all coming together in one big space to celebrate,” President Meghan Hughes wrote in the announcement. “I love the spirit, the energy, the optimism, and the faith it gives me every year in what education creates.”

She noted how much commencement means to students, their families and to faculty, as well. To that end, she said the college will try to find a way to celebrate the Class of 2020 at a later date.

Some state systems, such as the University of Hawaii and Minnesota State, last week pulled the plug on May commencements, though individual colleges are exploring virtual options.

The Virginia Community Colleges System also has decided to cancel or postpone May celebrations for all 23 of its colleges following guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on social distancing. But many of the colleges hope they can find a way to give a proper celebration.

“We are committed to holding commencement at a later date, but it is too early to determine the time frame,” said John Rainone, president of Dabney S. Lancaster Community College, in an update on the college’s website.

Rural challenges

Many rural colleges also face another challenge: Whether they would have the bandwidth in their remote locations to host an online celebration. That’s one of the concerns for Linda Lujan, president of Colorado’s Lamar Community College, which is making plans for an alternative commencement though it hasn’t decided whether to cancel.

“We don’t think that’s feasible,” she said of streaming commencement. However, it may host a website or leverage social media to post photos and comments from students. 

“We’re still brainstorming,” Lujan said.

Shifting gears

After Montgomery College (MC) in Maryland decided to cancel its commencement exercises and other college-sponsored events, its foundation reallocated almost $550,000 to a scholarship and grant account to help its students during the pandemic with tuition, fees, books, supplies, technology, food, housing and more.

The need for student emergency funding was about to completely exhaust and exceed the foundation’s capacity to help, said Joyce Matthews, MC’s vice president of development and alumni relations and executive director of its foundation. She floated the idea of tapping funds setaside for commencement and other canceled events, and credited MC President DeRionne Pollard’s “heart-based leadership” to quickly make it happen.

The response to the emergency grants — which also included a $10,000 grant from a foundation board member — has been overwhelming, Matthews said, with requests coming from students working in the service industry and others. Even students who have never applied for financial aid are seeking help, with many noting that they or their parents have lost jobs in the current crisis, she said.

“The emails, still coming in, are hard to read and absorb,” Matthews said.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.