Virtual Graduation: Better Than Graduating In-Person?

Virtual graduation sounded like a compromise, but graduating online was actually a unique and memorable experience.

The author video calls her mother after the commencement closes. (Photo by Jordan Reynolds)

The author video calls her mother after the commencement closes. (Photo by Jordan Reynolds)

March 24th was a big blow to what I thought my last semester in grad school would look like. Like everyone else in the Simmons University Class of 2020, I received an email from our university president, informing us that all graduation ceremonies would now be held virtually, due to health concerns of gathering in large groups during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are working hard to create a unique, memorable and meaningful virtual experience for our graduating undergraduate and graduate students,” President Helen Drinan wrote.

While I wanted to be grateful in that moment, for all of the hard work of the university staff, more than anything, I was sad and frustrated.

How could my graduate school commencement be unique, memorable, and meaningful when I couldn’t spend it with my classmates, celebrating hand-in-hand? I had personally hit a number of milestones in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program, including writing my first novel and diving into the fascinating, but mind-boggling world of literary criticism, both feats I would have considered unachievable before the program.

Amidst new stay-at-home advisories prompted by Covid-19, I was starting to feel the isolation—I felt alone and unheard. And now I was learning I would also graduate alone? There would be no hugs, no cap tosses, no family pictures, no stage walks. What about the gowns? What about my party, the only graduation celebration I had ever been thrown? What about my mom, driving 1,400 miles to see me graduate… was she still going to be able to travel? And for what… to see me graduate from in front of my computer?

It took another month for those answers to become clear. Yes, there would be gowns. No, there would not be a party. No, my mom would not be driving up. There were just too many health risks involved for her to make the trip, especially given her status as an essential worker with increased potential for exposure to the virus. I felt bad that she had planned the entire graduation party, and now it was all going to waste. Plus, I missed her deviled eggs.

As a first-generation college student from a low-income background, education has always been a part of my American dream. I knew with education I would be able to lift myself and my family out of poverty, and I am blessed to say that—student loan debt aside—I have achieved that dream. Graduation, for me, is an acknowledgement of my family’s multi-generation struggle for stability. So, my expectations for this year’s celebration, for what I expect to be my final degree, were high.

Last Friday, I stood in front of my computer, and while I came in skeptical of the experience, I admit, graduating virtually wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. While there was no physical stage, no cap toss, or no moving of the tassel, there was so much more celebration than times past.

First, there was the setting. I stood comfortably in my home, out of the hot sun and unworried about standing and sitting and applauding at the right times. With plenty of snacks and libations, I felt more like I was at a picnic than a commencement, except for seeing all of my professors and classmates in full-blown regalia. Of course, I shared in that tradition, wearing my graduate cap, gown, and hood.

Then, there was the unique flair every student brought to the ceremony. On the screen, I saw classmates with pets and loved one, with flowers and balloons and banners. Some graduates popped confetti or waved celebratory flags. Others danced with their children or ‘raised the roof’ solo. Every graduate had the opportunity to transform their physical space into an expression of their unique accomplishments and journey.

Unforgettably, there were the attendees. Unlike in past graduations, where tickets were limited to a few guests per graduate and particularly well-supported students joined waitlists for extra tickets, anyone could attend our livestreamed ceremony. At my undergraduate ceremony, I had four guests—at my first master’s ceremony, I had three. This time around, with the event being virtual, I had friends and family from across eight states tuning in, each of them texting me well wishes throughout the event. The accessibility of livestream could never be surpassed by live events.

Candidates in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults are called to stand by department chair Dr. Cathryn Mercier. (Screenshot via YouTube/Zoom livestreamed ceremony)

Candidates in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults are called to stand by department chair Dr. Cathryn Mercier. (Screenshot via YouTube/Zoom livestreamed ceremony)

Seeing my friends and family rally around me in this unfortunate health crisis brought me back to 2009, when I watched my grandfather struggle to make it up and down the bleacher seating at my undergraduate ceremony due to health issues. If he were still here today, he would have watched cozily from his favorite recliner, unbothered by the expansive stadium setting that gave him such a hassle before.

I think, too, of classmates who had moved out-of-state and out-of-country before commencement, to start new jobs and new lives. They missed our undergraduate ceremony simply because they couldn’t attend in-person. Had we had a virtual option then, they would have crossed the stage with us, not in-person, but on-screen.

My 2020 virtual graduation was one for the books, indeed. I rolled out of bed this morning, had my hair trimmed up by my partner, worked remotely for a couple of hours, and then enjoyed a socially-distanced toast with my neighbors. In time for our commencement camera check, I suited up in my graduation regalia and took my place squarely in front of my laptop, ready to get my degree.

Graduation flowers and cards

Thank you to everyone who sent cards, flowers, and gifts for my graduation!

My room was filled with the scents of flowers that loved ones had sent. Cards lined my desk. My partner stood proudly behind me, taking photos and videos, and adjusting my hood.

Then the moment came. I was in the first group of graduates to be called. The wonderfully inspiring director of the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, Dr. Cathryn Mercier, appeared on-screen, asking for each of the twelve candidates in my program to stand. We turned on our cameras, and she called our names, but not before bringing me to tears. She ended:

“In crossing this virtual stage, know that this home of Simmons and the children’s literature alumni who welcome you are but one click—of your ruby slippers or on your keyboard—just one click away.”

Of course she would make an Oz reference, because that’s just the type of eloquent and ever-apropos speaker she is.

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged our country to pull together as a community while also following safe socialization guidelines that require us to support one another from afar. This graduation, I went in thinking a virtual ceremony would ruin the celebration of my class’s achievements, but I came out grateful for all of the people who worked to make sure the Class of 2020 got the pomp and circumstance of every class that has come before it.

Congressperson Ayanna Presley, who represents Simmons’ district, even sent in a recorded message congratulating and encouraging our class. Meanwhile, in other nationwide virtual graduation events over the weekend, speakers including former President Barack Obama and America’s media goddess Oprah Winfrey gave inspiring commencement speeches to graduating high school and university students in the Class of 2020.

Virtual, it turns out, isn’t so bad. It makes me wonder… will virtual graduations continue after Covid-19? My virtual graduation, for one, turned out to be a unique, memorable, and meaningful experience, even more accessible and uniting than past ceremonies I’ve attended.

It’s certainly one yellow brick road to consider. Of course, we’re going to need to work on universal student access to the Internet and devices.

Erica Swallow graduates virtually from Simmons University

Erica Swallow graduates virtually from Simmons University (Photo by Jordan Reynolds)

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