Celebrating College Graduation During Coronavirus

Celebrating College Graduation During Coronavirus
portrait of Tyler Epps
By Tyler Epps

Published on April 8, 2021

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For over a year now, the COVID-19 pandemic has redefined and reshaped graduates' last year of college. In March 2020, campus closures upended students' lives, forcing them to finish their final year virtually. Seniors this year face a similar fate, as the pandemic continues to prevent many students from enjoying the traditional campus — and graduation — experience.

Last spring, in response to the coronavirus, universities around the U.S. postponed graduation ceremonies, shifted to virtual celebrations, or canceled commencement altogether.

“Even as many colleges indicate their want to host ‘live’ graduations, circumstance is taking precedence over pomp, safety is overruling tradition. It’s become the year of hybridized commencements.”. Source: — Michael T. Nietzel, Senior Contributor at Forbes

This year, however, more colleges are making plans to return to in-person commencement ceremonies, with social distancing guidelines and COVID-19 safety protocols in place. Former university president and Forbes contributor Michael T. Nietzel calls it "the year of hybridized commencements."

Institutions arranging for in-person graduation ceremonies include Brown University, which will restrict family members and friends to virtual attendance, and Bowdoin College, which will let each graduating student bring a maximum of two guests. Other schools, like the University of North Texas, are even giving 2020 grads the chance to get in on the action.

Despite improvements in COVID-19 testing and the emergence of several vaccines, a large number of schools intend to keep commencement celebrations 100% virtual for a second year in a row.

How Colleges Are Celebrating 2021 Commencement

In-Person Ceremonies for Graduates Only

In an effort to give students a sense of normalcy without risking health and safety, many colleges plan to hold in-person, socially distanced graduation events for students only. Family and friends may join virtually. Schools taking this route include Indiana University Bloomington and Dartmouth College.

In-Person Ceremonies With Limited Guests

Some colleges are taking the in-person ceremony one step further and allowing graduates to bring a limited number of guests so that all family and friends do not have to attend virtually. Institutions with this option include Pennsylvania State University and the University of Central Florida.

Virtual Ceremonies

Following in last year's footsteps, many colleges will hold virtual ceremonies in real time through online platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Facebook. Popular schools that plan to stay virtual include the University of Michigan, Stanford University, and the University of California, Berkeley.

Drive-Thru Ceremonies

A small handful of universities, including California State University, Sacramento, and the University of Hawai'i at Hilo, plan to host drive-thru graduation ceremonies in which graduating seniors wave and smile from the safety of their vehicles in parade-like style.

How College Seniors Are Handling 2021 Graduation

Graduating college is one of the most significant and exciting milestones in a student's life. Though many schools plan to recreate this experience virtually, others are preparing for limited in-person gatherings.

While the need for caution is understandable, some students are feeling robbed of the traditions that make these ceremonies so rewarding — especially those who never envisioned that the pandemic would seep into 2021 as it has. Even though several schools are planning for in-person commencements, many are limiting these events to students and requiring family and friends to attend virtually.

Tips for Celebrating College Graduation During COVID-19

Create a Slideshow: You can include pictures and videos reflecting on your achievements and memories throughout your time in school. Encourage your friends and family to add personal anecdotes and messages. Take and Share Photos of Yourself in Your Cap and Gown: Everyone needs a reason to get dressed up during a pandemic, and taking college graduation pictures is a great way to memorialize this major milestone in your life. Hold a Small Ceremony With Your Family at Home: You can still have a fun graduation party — it'll just have to take place in your living room or backyard. Get the family together and decorate with streamers and balloons that match your school's colors. Host a Video Chat Party With Family and Friends: Create a theme, decorate your backgrounds (or use a fun virtual backdrop), and celebrate with the people who have cheered you on every step of the way. Support Your Local Bakery by Ordering a Graduation Cake: If they're not accepting graduation orders, take the DIY route and bake your favorite cake at home.

But after a year of COVID-19-related shutdowns, more college students seem accepting of schools' decisions to keep graduation at least partly online. "If [in-person commencement] can't happen, I'm happy that my parents don't have to come here and possibly be exposed [to the coronavirus]," said Autumn Pressley, a senior at the University of Georgia.

Still, for students attending virtual ceremonies, it's difficult for colleges to deliver the same uplifting commencement speeches and unique traditions that are fundamental to college graduations. Walking across the stage and accepting your diploma in front of your loved ones is an unmatched feeling, one that many students in the class of 2021 may sadly miss out on.

The lack of a traditional graduation ceremony serves as both a reminder of the lost time and the challenging road that lies ahead with an extremely volatile job market.


Feature Image: Sean De Burca / The Image Bank / Getty Images

Feeling first-day-of-college jitters? Learn what to expect and how to prepare for the first day of class. Looking for a good school in the Southwest? Check out our list of the top 10 online colleges in the southwestern United States. Students can make college life easier by bringing 10 documents that are essential for study, work, and other aspects of student life.