COVID-Complicated Graduations: In-person or Virtual?

Her first reaction after receiving the email from the University announcing that commencement would be conducted online was to cry. Across Southern California, larger colleges were announcing plans for in-person graduations—so why not hers?

Then, twenty-two-year-old Anya dried her tears and turned to Instagram, asking: If Vanguard University hosted an in-person graduation, would they attend?

When eighty percent of the respondents said ‘Yes,’ she and two classmates created a GoFundMe account and started selling tickets.

Now standing in front of a rack overflowing with streamers and graduation banners at the party store, she remembered how she and her two classmates were quickly overwhelmed as students and their parents pitched in more than $25,000—significantly more than the $12,000 price tag for the convention center they were renting for the graduation, now scheduled for next week.

As Anya Sharma unloaded her shopping cart and placed the gazillion party supplies she’d chosen on the counter, she chatted with the cashier.

The tattooed clerk behind the register, covered in leather and piercings that lined her lobes and nostrils and brows, wore a lapel tag that announced her name as “Heidi M.” Heidi commiserated with Anya as she spoke of her frustration with their campus for sticking to virtual-only ceremonies. “It’s especially galling because UCLA, which is just two miles away and is graduating with a class five times larger than our very expensive private college, is offering in-person commencement ceremonies.”

The counter gal, Heidi, nodded her head, her hair settling around her shoulders in a wild cloud of corkscrew curls. “My cousin’s school—University of Maryland—is doing an in-person ceremony but they’re putting in extensive safety measures. They told graduates and their families to provide proof of vaccination or else, a negative coronavirus test,” she said, taking the cash Anya handed her.

Heidi smiled at her as she rang her up, two tiny silver balls peeking out from under her top lip.

“To be with my classmates, to walk across the stage, to receive the diploma that we all worked so hard for, it means absolutely everything, and a forty-five-minute virtual commencement of my name across the screen just wasn’t enough. “ Anya took the receipt the cashier handed her and tucked it into her bag. As she turned to leave, she waggled her fingers at Heidi, thinking of the video and slide show tribute featuring each participating senior that they would play before the graduates walked across the stage of the rental hall.

This is the moment that every kid dreams of growing up. . .so what it the University doesn’t endorse it, she thought with a big, happy grin that flooded her face with sunshine.

* * * * *

The red brick building loomed before Bindu Fernandes in the street, the turret with its green dome achingly familiar since her twenty-two-year-old son had first come to the University of Michigan to study engineering here four years ago.

As the car pulled to a halt, Bindu could see her son’s best friend’s mom, Robyn Kelly, waiting outside the University for her, her curly blond hair gleaming in the sun. There was a small group of protestors, other parents she guessed, already assembled outside the gate, holding placards: “Honk to Support UMich Class of 2021, In-person, Safe, Graduation ceremony.” That was the reason Bindu had driven two-and-a-half hours from her home in North Muskegon, on the shore of Lake Michigan, to join the group of parents and students who now stood on the streets of Ann Arbor demanding an in-person commencement.

“Didi, it’s so unfair,” Bindu complained to her older sister, who was calling from California. “The UMichigan Stadium is capable of seating more than 100,000 people —and is both the largest in the country and one of the largest in the world. On the other hand, Michigan State University, with has far less outdoor seating capacity, is holding fifty staggered ceremonies to ensure social distancing. It is inconceivable that we would be in the same position this year when the University had a year to plan.”

Bindu finished her phone call as she parked and locked her car, walking briskly across the gum-stained pavement to join the others.

The following week, while lathering herself in the shower with her favorite creamy, rich Sakura Blossom soap that her brother sent her from London she would think back on the rally she and the parent group organized. Possibly because of pressure from the parents, the University announced several changes. Graduating seniors would be allowed to watch the ceremony on a screen while sitting inside the stadium. Parents would be allowed to go inside the stadium afterward to take pictures.

Two days later: Bindu’s feet tapped a runaway rhythm in the flat ballerina shoes she’d worn all day as she clicked full-color shots of seniors in burgundy caps and gowns, the bright gold tassels wagging like wayward tails as the kids tossed their caps in the sky.

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