Inside Virtual Commencement Celebrations
Commencement looked a little different for the Class of 2020.
With campuses shuttered due to the COVID-19 pandemic, institutions around the globe cancelled or postponed graduation ceremonies until later in 2020—but that didn’t stop staff and students from finding creative ways to celebrate.
Here’s a snapshot of how some of those celebrations unfolded online.
Building Commencement, Block by Block
On May 22, 2020, more than a thousand students “walked” the virtual stage for Quaranteen University’s virtual commencement in Minecraft.
“We wanted to bring people together to create some semblance of a community when were stuck at home,” says Rudy Raveendran, a 2020 graduate of Boston University who co-founded Quaranteen University. “It's not the same thing as all being together in person. But at least in Minecraft, you don't have to be six feet away from someone else.”
Students at schools around the globe used the online game Minecraft, in which players design and build worlds block by block, to simulate graduation—including, for instance, UC Berkeley’s two-day “Blockeley University” party, which included a concert and COVID-19 relief fundraiser.
Minecraft graduation ceremonies weren’t meant to replicate in-person commencement, points out Quaranteen University’s PR head Carey Lin.
“We’re very proud of the work we did, but this isn’t a replacement for graduation,” says Lin, a 2020 BU public relations and film graduate. It’s just for fun, she says.
Meanwhile, outside of Minecraft, colleges and universities launched online celebrations of various shapes and sizes. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, U.S., streamed its May 29 ceremonies, crafted a virtual reality app that simulated the experience of walking across the commencement stage, built a crowdsourced mosaic, and arranged a collaborative music project called Comusica.
Yale-NUS College in Singapore streamed its May 18 ceremony on YouTube, and built out a celebration website with social media graphics and stickers, “20 Questions” videos with graduating students, and a series of reflection letters from seniors called “Dear First Year Me.” The Yale-NUS commencement website also honored philanthropy: this year, more than 75% of seniors also gave to the school’s senior class gift to support student financial aid.
Staff at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, U.S., worked with graduating students’ parents to create a video slideshow for its May 16 streamed ceremony with seniors’ childhood photos to “show grads how far they’ve come,” says Anice Barbosa, integrated marketing specialist at Wheaton. The team also crowdsourced messages from faculty wishing seniors the best.
Messages of Support
For its first ever virtual graduation on March 30, Newcastle University medical students recited the Hippocratic Oath virtually. The nearly 300 graduating students of the Newcastle upon Tyne, U.K., institution graduated a month early so that they could immediately start working to fight the COVID-19 pandemic. “You’re our greatest achievement,” said university vice-chancellor Chris Day to open the ceremony.
Other institutions found innovative ways to collect and share messages of support for students. Harper College, a community college in Palatine, Illinois, U.S., created a commencement website where friends, family, staff, and faculty could leave individual shout-outs for each of its 3,300 class of 2020 graduates.
Other colleges called upon celebrities and notable alumni to share words of encouragement for graduates. The University of Missouri, in Columbia, U.S., for instance, planned a 24-hour #MizzouMade online celebration which featured videos from a host of alumni such as singer Sheryl Crow. Students at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, U.S., received a special message from actor Tom Hanks; basketball player Dwyane Wade left a message for the community of his alma mater, Marquette University, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.
Surprises and In-Person Fun
In addition to creating fun videos and virtual backgrounds, The University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Go Big Grad party had an added twist: Every graduate received a celebration box with their cap, tassel, and custom swag to match their degree earned. UNL filmed an “unboxing video” with student Ramarro Lamar unpacking the box and a TikTok-inspired video of students and their boxes.
“It was definitely a labor of love of the entire campus!” says Tyler Thomas, senior director of integrated content at UNL.
Meanwhile, other institutions found socially distant ways to honor seniors. Greenhill School in Addison, Texas, U.S., honored its seniors by painting their names on its football field. Thanks to a detailed social distancing plan, each senior came to campus to see his or her name.
Linfield College in McMinnville, Oregon, U.S., hosted a “drive through” party for its more than 500 graduating seniors to pick up their diploma covers, complete with custom walk-up songs. Spaced into small groups, students could even take a picture with a cutout of the college’s president, Miles K. Davis.
“It’s been a challenging year to say the least, but those challenges don’t diminish the value of the learning experiences that we’ve had,” says Davis, who watched his own son’s virtual graduation from law school. “No matter whether it's through video or social media or in person, we’re happy and proud of our students who are graduating.”
Explore more ways institutions are celebrating graduates in the CASE Library’s Commencement Planning and Coronavirus sample guide, with articles, websites, and commencement announcements.
How did your institution celebrate the Class of 2020? Tweet photos to @CASEAdvance.
About the author(s)
Meredith Barnett is the Managing Editor at CASE.