Students hope Commencement happens, but not virtually

Students: Delay, don’t cancel Commencement

Seniors and graduate students say they still want an on-campus graduation — possibly even christening the new Dome.
Published: March 25, 2020
Syracuse University Commencement 2015

Several seniors may have found a silver lining amid the heartbreak of learning earlier this week that Commencement would not take place as planned in May.

Perhaps, they said, the class of 2020 graduation could be the first event in the newly renovated Dome, which is undergoing a $118 million renovation and is expected to reopen sometime in the fall. The Dome’s iconic roof was deflated last week and dismantled.

“It would be cool if our Commencement ceremony is the Dome’s first big event,” said psychology and public health senior Breanna Jones.

Jones is back with her family in Brooklyn, and the news Monday that graduation would be postponed hit her hard.

“I honestly just might cry,” she said when asked to talk about it Wednesday morning.

Two other seniors also mentioned the possibility of a Dome graduation. Those students were among the 13 seniors and graduate students contacted Tuesday to gauge how students on the cusp of graduating want their accomplishments recognized.

The class of 2020 was already set to be the first not to have their Commencement in the Dome since 1981. The Dome closed for renovations after the women’s basketball team played Boston College on March 1.

Graduation was to be held on the quad May 10. But Chancellor Kent Syverud announced Monday that the COVID-19 epidemic turning life upside down around the world made that impossible. He said the university would survey students to ask about their preferences.

Of the four graduate students and nine undergraduate students contacted Wednesday, all but three said they would prefer an on-campus Commencement to any other solution, with most eyeing late summer or fall as the most sensible time to schedule the event. Many mentioned trying to turn the delay into a positive, by christening the Dome, by combining the event with alumni weekend or perhaps dovetailing it with a big sporting event.

The other three students were less concerned about celebrating the occasion on campus but, like the other 10, were opposed to a virtual graduation, saying it would fail to be meaningful.

“It’s just a waste of time,” broadcast senior Jonathon Hoppe said of a virtual ceremony.

Fellow broadcast senior Jonah Karp agreed that a virtual ceremony would be far from inspiring. “Students will lose interest halfway through,” he said, adding that he thinks pushing graduation off or canceling it altogether is the smart move.

“At this point I just want my diploma,” Karp said. “We don’t know when the virus is going to end, so why maximize risk when you can just call off the whole event.”

But most of the students would be disappointed not to come back to campus, see their friends again and have occasion to formally recognize a significant milestone.

“I would like to see a ceremony set to a later date because I think (it’s) important to celebrate accomplishments and have the satisfaction and closure,” said multimedia and photography graduate student Jordan Larson. “It’s also for friends and family who supported you in getting there.”

Many students recognized the logistical challenges for both the school and their peers in returning to campus for graduation. But religion senior Jess Holman thinks an on-campus ceremony would be well attended.

“I think people in the class would be willing to come back for it since it is such a monumental occasion,” Holman said from her home in Massachusetts. “I understand this is logistically difficult for sure, but the actual ceremony celebrating the accomplishments of the members of the class is too important to not have.”

Avery Wilkerson, a student in the Communications@Syracuse online master’s program, said she felt that the cancellation of Commencement was “a blow to all of us.”

Wilkerson works in Atlanta as a producer for a TV show on the Bravo network while also completing her graduate studies through Syracuse. The production of her show was canceled for three weeks because of COVID-19 and she returned home to Dallas for what she called a “corona-cation.” Like many students, she favored a late summer, fall or early winter ceremony as she did not want the recognition of the class of 2020 to collide with ceremonies for the class of 2021.

BDJ graduate student Alex Peebles was among those not in favor of a virtual Commencement ceremony.

“I don’t think it would give justice to the seniors who have gone through their program for four years and the grad students who want to walk,” Peebles said. “I think that’s a day where you can make a memory for your family and yourself and look back on and be proud of all the work you put in.”

Public relations senior Alexis Gilman agrees.

“I would like to either see a delay until the summer and then a graduation ceremony in person or a delay until the Dome is finished and then graduation in person there,” she said. “I personally won’t be happy with anything else.”

Across the Atlantic

Before COVID-19, Marina Fernández De La Cuesta’s family was excited to join her in Syracuse to celebrate her graduation. She has now returned home to her nation, which has the second-highest number of deaths from the virus. “While my family is healthy, the situation in Spain is very grave,” she said.

The magazine senior knows that no matter what the university decides, it might be hard for her to return to Syracuse from Spain for Commencement. But she wants the university to schedule the event on campus, regardless.

“It would give the class of 2020 a chance to reunite,” she said.

Although most students were disappointed that graduation would not take place in May, all those contacted said they were understanding of the university’s decision, including marketing and finance senior Jamie Vinick, who is still on campus but will soon be heading home to Potomac, Maryland.

“It’s been incredibly devastating and upsetting to acknowledge that as a graduating senior, I cannot celebrate my accomplishments surrounded by family, friends, and peers as planned,” she said. “However, we have entered uncharted territory and need to confront this new reality that will not dissipate unless everyone does their part in social distancing.”

But that doesn’t mean she has given up on graduation.

“I believe the most meaningful way to celebrate the class of 2020,” she said, “is to postpone an in-person Commencement address to late this summer or early fall, whenever it is safe to gather in large social settings.”

Editor's Note:

Andrew Benbenek, Sydney Bergan, Elijah Brown, Mallory Carlson, Cameron Ezeir, Talia Gerardi, Porter Holt, Emily Karp, Owen Mitchell, Eleanor Quarles and Morgan Wood contributed to this report.