Should You Host a Virtual Graduation Ceremony? (Yes, You Should!)
In-person graduations might be shuttered, but hosting virtual ceremonies should be a top priority for community colleges.
My college graduation was a bore. About 3,000 of my “closest friends” sat with me at the PNC Bank Arts Center, freezing underneath silky caps and gowns that expelled more heat than they retained. At one point, I dozed off as the keynote speaker, a personal friend of the college president and not a well-known celebrity or personality, delivered his speech about his kids and his life.
Though I protested attending my own graduation, I’ve come around on the idea entirely. And as a PR staffer at a community college that isn’t hosting a virtual ceremony, I’ve realized graduations are more important than they may seem.
Graduations are special. They are the stamp of approval that 120 credit hours and countless all-nighters were worth the effort. Students attend not only for themselves, but for their families and friends who want to watch them walk the stage, accept a sweaty handshake, and snatch a diploma while the audience enters an impromptu cheer contest.
COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into graduation plans around the country. Arenas and banquet hall will stay dark, as social distancing requirements prevent mass gatherings. Institutions are instead shifting their focus to virtual platforms. Historically Black Colleges and Universities are planning for a virtual graduation, featuring President Barack Obama, Kevin Hart and Omari Hardwick, just as high schools are managing drive-in ceremonies and online festivities.
A virtual celebration might seem like a waste of time. With staff resources stretched thin and a total freeze on hiring, institutions like my own turn down graduations, citing the lack of manpower to make a memorable event.
But community colleges, do yourself a favor: host a virtual graduation.
Why Host a Virtual Ceremony?
One of the hallmarks of community colleges is that they tend to enroll a diverse population. Lower tuition prices compared to four-year universities make them prime locations for first-generation and alternative students.
Four-year schools have taken a shine to building scholarships to diversify their campuses. The commitment, usually being a full-time student, means they target first generation students straight out of high school.
But what about part-timers? Community colleges fill the gaps for so many non-traditional students who are entering higher education for the first time. Single parents, full-time workers and disabled students, who otherwise couldn’t go away to college, can earn their degrees at a pace right for them at a local junior college.
Graduation for these students is both a celebration of their accomplishments and the assurance that they worked just as hard as any other post-secondary student. A virtual ceremony isn’t ideal, but for community college students who may have had to put their educations on hold, graduation is recognition for a feat that might not have been otherwise accomplishable.
Keep It Simple
Now that we’re past the “why”, here’s the how. Virtual graduations don’t have to be elaborate. A few weeks ago I attended an induction ceremony for my college’s Phi Theta Kappa chapter. That ceremony, which usually runs a couple hours, is catered and is rife for opportunities for photos, was successfully boiled down to a hour all while giving students the space to cheer on their accomplishment.
The program followed a powerpoint format, with slides either prompting speakers or featuring pre-recorded speeches. In lieu of in-person mingling and photo ops, the group hosted an open forum for students to chat with one another about the ceremony and life in general. It was a much-needed time for connection.
Though graduations are bound to be larger than an honor society induction, the same principles apply. Event segments can be set up as a slideshow that run through Zoom or any other streaming software with screenshare capabilities.
Or, to limit the possibility of a livestream fumble, organizations can build pre-record a video graduation that can be “premiered” on Facebook Live or YouTube. Then, smaller groups can form breakout sessions separated by programs to let students connect with the people they spent time with during their education.
At the very least, offering caps and gowns to graduates is a low-impact way to foster a spirit of celebration. Regalia — the cap and gowns, but also pins, cords, tassels — carry the weight of student accomplishments while opening the doors for at-home photo ops. And with a freeze on all in-person events, these photos will help generate low-cost social media mentions as grads show off their collegiate bling.
The end of the academic year is a time for celebrating both students and their support systems. It’s a time to officially bid farewell to the organizations that push their students to be their academic best. That shouldn’t change in the face the pandemic.