Colleges plan safe, celebratory commencements

Tennessee’s Northeast State Community College on Tuesday held its Grad Kickoff Day. (Photo: NSCC)

Commencement season is almost here. Though graduation ceremonies won’t be quite like they were pre-pandemic, some colleges are planning modified in-person events.

Owens Community College (OCC) typically holds two graduation ceremonies a year: one in May and one in December. A typical graduation ceremony at the Ohio college would involve a big, Friday night event with hundreds of graduates and thousands of family members and friends. There was no limit to the amount of people grads could invite to cheer them on.

Due to Covid-19, the 2020 in-person ceremonies were canceled, and the college opted instead to do a special commencement video and a diploma pick-up event.

“Having to cancel those was probably one of the most challenging parts of the pandemic,” says Amy Giordano, OCC’s vice president of enrollment management and student services. It was hard not to be able to throw a party for the hard-working students, she says.

Collaboration is key

This spring, OCC will celebrate its graduates in three separate in-person ceremonies, all held on May 14. The ceremonies will be broken out by schools. Business and liberal arts graduates will have one ceremony, STEM grads will have another, and health professions grads will have their own ceremony – minus nursing students, who get a separate pinning ceremony on a different night.

Each graduate can invite only two people to allow for social distancing.

While the college is still working out all the details, Giordano says each ceremony will last about 45 minutes, leaving plenty of time to get people out and get the event space sanitized before the next group enters.

The plan came together with input from stakeholders in all areas of the college community and ensures that Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state Covid-19 guidelines are followed. Now, putting it into action requires a lot of collaboration, Giordano says.

“Collaboration is incredibly important, but more so during a pandemic,” she says.

Twice weekly planning meetings include staff from public safety, facilities management, marketing, IT, the college’s Covid-19 liaison and more. The commencement committee also is in contact with the local health department.

“We’ve been inclusive from the design phase to try to ensure no surprises,” Giordano says. 

Recreating a special event

At Massachusetts’ Northern Essex Community College (NECC), the traditional commencement was a well-oiled machine, which included a tent that fit 3,000 people. A whole host of board members and other college representatives would be on-stage to cheer on the graduates as they received their diplomas.  

“Last year, we had to recreate it. This year, we have to recreate it again,” says Ernie Greenslade, NECC’s director of public relations. 

NECC held virtual ceremonies in 2020 and “celebration package” pick-ups for grads.

This spring, the college will hold five separate outdoor ceremonies in one day, starting at 9:00 a.m. Staff will have an hour to disinfect between events. Graduates will space six feet apart and can invite only one or two guests. On stage, only a few representatives from the college will be present at each ceremony due to social distancing guidelines.

Everyone attending will wear special lanyards, which will have a QR code leading to Covid-19 guidelines.  

In 2020, North Essex Community college hosted a drive-thru event where students could pick up celebration packages. (Photo: NECC)

Though it will be different, the focus remains the same as all other years: honoring the hard work of students.

“Students like walking across that stage and hearing their name called. That’s the important stuff,” says Allison Gagne, NECC’s events coordinator.

Graduates who weren’t able to walk the stage in 2020 have been invited to participate, too. The college will livestream the ceremonies for those who can’t attend in person.

Throughout planning, one thing has become clear: “Be flexible,” says Registrar Sue Shain.

Gagne echoes that.

“We can’t control everything. It’s a moving target,” she says. “We have a plan and a plan and a plan.”

Best of both worlds

Northeast State Community College in Tennessee also will have five ceremonies in one day – but only graduates are invited. The college doesn’t have a large enough facility to properly space graduates and guests.

Spread throughout the five ceremonies, there will be about 500 graduates – out of about 1,500 grads – crossing the stage, estimates Registrar Deidra Close.

Because grads won’t have family and friends in the audience, the college will livestream the event. It also will be “touchless,” says Close, so no handshakes on stage, but graduates will get a photo with the president, which they will receive free of charge. And at the end of the stage, there will be a streaming camera where the person can stop and wave or say something brief to those watching online.

“Even though it’s ceremonial, it’s super important for students to get that sense of completion by walking across the stage,” Close says. This year’s situation isn’t ideal, “but it doesn’t lessen their achievement.”

Grads also will receive a graduation box on their way out, which will include special mementos and extra copies of the commencement program.

Despite the safety precautions, many students may still be uncomfortable with an in-person event – or work or other obligations may prevent them from attending the May 11 event. That evening, the college will host a virtual ceremony. All 1,500 students have an opportunity to submit a photo and a 10-second video for the virtual event.

In planning for this spring’s commencement ceremony, Northeast State sent out survey to students, asking if they would prefer a fully virtual event or an in-person ceremony with no guest. Students were split nearly 50/50, with a few more leaning to the in-person option. So the college is giving students “the best of both worlds,” Close says.

“I want people to realize we take these decisions incredibly thoughtfully and personally,” she adds.

No rain on this parade

Many community colleges will continue to forego the stage crossings this spring due to safety concerns, including Lake Land College. But the Illinois college is still celebrating its graduates – with an on-campus parade.

The college knew it was going to have a virtual ceremony – as it did in 2020 – but wanted to add to the celebration.

“Our town had a parade for high school grads. It was exciting,” says Kelly Allee, Lake Land’s director of marketing and public relations. “We agreed to adopt that concept and to host the event with our safety guidelines.”

Graduates can sign up to participate in the parade and will be grouped into time slots based on their academic program.

Each graduate can drive one vehicle in the parade, which they can pack with family. They are encouraged to decorate their cars.

When they first arrive on campus, graduates will pass through a Covid screening station before they move onto the parade route, which will take them through campus. Lake Land President Josh Bullock will greet grads along the route, hand them their diploma covers and pose for a picture.

The campus community is pitching in to ensure the event is a celebration, according to Allee. The alumni association is making a banner; faculty and staff will line the route with fun signs; and the grounds crew is “sprucing up” the campus.

“Even though we’re in the Covid environment, we have a great team atmosphere,” Allee says. “It’s nice to plan something that could touch so many lives.”

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.