May 22 2020

The Graduating Class of 2020 Gets Its Commencement — Online

Faced with stay-at-home orders, colleges including San Diego State University and Johns Hopkins University are opting for online commencement celebrations.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced college seniors to finish their final semester online, it dramatically altered one of the most significant events of their lives: their college graduation ceremonies. But many universities refuse to let stay-at-home restrictions and social distancing guidelines stop them from throwing their students a celebration — even if it’s only online. 

After COVID-19 forced higher education institutions to postpone regular commencement ceremonies, colleges and universities are throwing shortened virtual ceremonies to honor and celebrate their 2020 graduating classes. 

Compared to a traditional graduation ceremony in a packed stadium or arena, the digital events might lack the usual pomp and circumstance. Still, universities are doing their best to recreate the experience online.

Turning to the Campus Community to Brainstorm Ideas

Virtual commencements are something of a novel concept, and university planners are finding they need to get creative. Some have enlisted faculty and students for ideas. 

In Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University used an internal crowdsourcing website to engage graduating students and ask what they wanted in their virtual ceremony. Students responded by submitting and voting on ideas.

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One idea that particularly resonated with students was to sprinkle student photos and videos into the virtual ceremony. Others suggested creating an online “yearbook” page for each undergraduate student. The university decided to do both.

“It was important for us that they felt involved in the process,” says Sarah Martin, the university’s senior associate director of university events. “We wanted this to have a more personal feel and to recognize that we are in this new environment together.” 

A Difference in Approaches for Virtual Graduations

Universities across the United States are taking their own unique approaches. Some feature speeches given by university leaders. Other virtual ceremonies are more involved, with commencement speakers, student speakers and student musicians performing together via videoconference. 

Many colleges are broadcasting their ceremonies on university websites and social media. Some have prerecorded their events, while others plan a combination of live and recorded elements. Most, if not all, will incorporate social media into their ceremonies and include students’ photos and videos.

Around 9,000 students will graduate from Johns Hopkins this spring. The university will hold 10 virtual commencements in May: one for undergrads, and separate ceremonies for graduate and doctoral students from each school. 

A third-party production company oversees each virtual ceremony, creating microwebsites for each commencement and working with individual schools to create specific content for their ceremonies. 

Undergraduate commencement is typically more than three hours long, but the university will keep its May 21 celebration to about an hour. It will include a combination of live and recorded speeches, degrees conferred by the university president, and a commencement speaker.

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In addition to students’ videos and photos, the ceremony will also include musical performances from the university’s music and dance conservatory school, the Peabody Institute. The musicians recorded their performances through videoconferencing software. 

“We are trying to incorporate as much of the traditional ceremony as we can,” Martin says. “But we want to strike a balance and include entertainment and engaging elements to it.” 

Videoconferencing and Livestream Services Save Graduation

San Diego State University encouraged students to attend a virtual commencement celebration — and even dress up in their caps and gowns — with their parents watching alongside them. 

“Our president will address the class of 2020, and we will do a virtual tassel change,” says Melissa Henss, SDSU’s director of presidential and university events, referring to the ceremonial flipping of the tassel that signifies the students’ transition into graduates. “We have a lot of fun elements where they can still celebrate virtually at home with their families.” 

We wanted this to have a more personal feel and to recognize that we are in this new environment together."

Sarah Martin associate director of university events, Johns Hopkins University.

On May 16, SDSU broadcast a fast-paced, 20-minute prerecorded video that featured a year-in-review segment. It included remarks by university leaders, the Associated Students president and congratulatory video messages from notable alumni such as Ellen Ochoa, the first Latina astronaut to visit space.

Henss and her team recorded most of the content using Zoom’s videoconferencing service, while a videographer on the university’s marketing team used Adobe Premiere Pro software to edit the videos. 

“We knew it would be challenging with the social distancing guidelines to do anything live,” Henss says, “so prerecording it eliminates any chance of technical problems.” 

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The university used a livestreaming service to broadcast the prerecorded video on SDSU’s homepage. That streaming service simulcasted the video on Facebook, giving grads, their families and their friends multiple places to view the ceremony. 

Rudy Arias, associate director of learning spaces and faculty support at SDSU’s Instructional Technology Services, is in charge of coordinating the virtual celebration video and ensuring everything runs smoothly. He has been livestreaming commencements since 2012, and the events are always popular: Last year’s webcast received over 33,000 views.

To personalize the event, the university asked its graduating class of 10,500 students to use the commencement hashtag #SDSUgrad when posting pictures of themselves in their regalia or SDSU gear on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. Parents and friends also used the hashtag to post photos with congratulatory messages. 

Using the Cloud to Personalize Virtual Graduations

Before broadcasting the prerecorded ceremony, the SDSU marketing team used Tagboard, a cloud-based software, to curate and display the photos in real time. “People can tune in early to see the photos and congratulatory messages,” Henss says. 

University staff also created a program book PDF organized by college that students can print out. 

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At the end of the virtual ceremony, the university directed students and their families to another cloud provider where they could access their personalized video keepsake. Graduates had the opportunity to upload photos, messages and videos of themselves in advance and could then share the video on social media, she says.

“They can do a video saying, ‘Thanks, Mom and Dad,’ and have the ability to use different Snapchat filters for bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees,” Henss says. “You can even wear virtual regalia while recording your message.” 

Overall, this year’s webcasts will take on added significance since extended families can’t gather to celebrate with graduates in person. “We definitely make an impact with unifying families,” Arias says.

nirat/ iStock / Getty Images Plus

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