For the 280 graduates of the ArtCenter College of Design in California, there was no walking across a stage to receive their diploma, no tossing of caps in the air. But otherwise, the college’s May 2 virtual graduation ceremony was similar to previous years’ events—except that it took place entirely online.

When students’ names were called, a slide with the student’s name, photo, and a sample of his or her artwork appeared on screen. “This is similar to what we do during a live ceremony while students walk across the stage,” says Media Relations Director Teri Bond.

The ceremony was streamed live on the college’s YouTube channel and Facebook page and is still available for viewing. About 3,000 people watched the live event, which went off without a hitch.

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With colleges and universities canceling or postponing this year’s graduation ceremonies because of COVID-19, campus leaders nationwide have had to find creative ways to honor the Class of 2020.

Although plans vary widely, many institutions are using online tools and platforms to recognize the achievements of graduates for now and hoping they can convene an in-person celebration later in the year.

“We know this spring’s ceremony will be memorable since it was very different from anything else we’ve ever done before,” Bond says, “but as an art and design school, we’re not afraid to create something new to accomplish a goal. We make, we create change. This is what we do and who we are.”

Honoring graduates with a mobile app

The University of Findlay, a private institution in Ohio with about 4,000 total students, is leveraging its mobile campus app to honor this year’s graduates.

“I’m hesitant to call it a virtual commencement, because it can’t replace our commencement ceremony,” says Rebecca Jenkins, assistant vice president of enrollment management and marketing. “But what it can do is enable us to feature videos of thanks. We’re going to invite parents to put messages of how proud they are of students in the app, so it’s all right there for students.”

Findlay has built a mobile campus app using Modo, an app-building platform for higher education that doesn’t require any coding. The platform’s maker, Modo Labs, has released what it calls a “Virtual Commencement Starter Kit” for its customers that helps institutions create graduation experiences that reflect the highly personal, once-in-a-lifetime nature of these events.

For instance, students and their families can stream live or pre-recorded commencement speeches and messages, take part in senior traditions virtually, and stay connected while planning for the delayed on-campus celebrations that many schools are scheduling.

Leveraging a campus app “enables us to send push notifications to students,” Jenkins says. “For instance, we can tell them to check out the video from [President Katherine] Fell, congratulating them on their accomplishment—and it’s far more likely that people are going to respond to a push notification than an email.”

Engaging graduates through the campus app “is going to help us make them feel special,” she adds. “That’s a big worry right now. This group of students have been working for many years, and they were very much looking forward to that recognition. We can’t give it to them right now, but I’m hoping this helps.”

Creating meaning for students

After forming a task force in late March to study the issue, the Touro College and University System decided to hold a number of virtual graduation ceremonies for its undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. The decision was made with input from student leaders.

“Our goal was to make it as meaningful as possible for the students,” says Patricia Salkin, provost of the graduate and professional divisions of Touro College. “We incorporated many of the students’ suggestions for the virtual ceremonies, which will be partially live and partially taped—and we have not ruled out the possibility of hosting an in-person ceremony sometime in the summer if this becomes possible.”

Each of the college system’s schools will host its own virtual ceremony. When students’ names are called, schools with smaller enrollments will show the students’ photos and perhaps short biographical information. The ceremonies will be streamed live on Vimeo. Every graduate will receive a copy of the recording, and the link will be archived and available for viewing after the event itself.

Trying to keep the speeches authentic, yet prerecorded, and dealing with the quality of recordings from people’s homes were some of the challenges that Touro faced in producing virtual ceremonies. “We started early and have recorded and re-recorded to get these recordings better and better,” Salkin says.

She adds: “I think there was a lot of initial disappointment about the decision to go virtual, but as time has gone on, people really have accepted it as they see the seriousness of the virus. On the bright side, there are no ticket restrictions on graduation this year—every graduate can invite as many family and friends and they want to witness their graduation.”

For the Wake Forest University School of Law, “ensuring that we were planning an event that our students wanted and saw value in, at a time when so many changes have come at them, was a challenge,” says Stephanie Skordas, director of marketing, communications, and public relations. “Asking them what they wanted and taking their input into account helped us create something that celebrates their accomplishments, even though we can’t be together in person as we’d all prefer to be.”

Based on student input, the law school is planning a virtual celebration for graduates on May 17. It will confer degrees virtually on May 18 and will hold an in-person hooding ceremony sometime in the fall.

“We are hosting a watch party for our students and making a video celebrating their time at Wake Forest Law,” Skordas says. “We’ve asked them to upload photos and videos to create a fun and nostalgic celebration video. We plan to host this watch party on our website and are still working through some of those logistics. We will share a link in advance, so anyone who wants to watch live can join in.”

While Wake Forest Law plans to hold an in-person hooding ceremony for all graduates in the fall, Lyon College in Arkansas is mailing out commencement packets with students’ hoods and honor cords. The college will host a virtual commencement ceremony on May 16, and it has advised students “to have a family member or someone special who lives with them hood them when their name is called,” says Director of Communications Madeline Roberts Pyle.

Showcasing graduates to employers

At ArtCenter, academic leaders brainstormed for weeks to figure out the best solution to celebrate the accomplishments of graduates while keeping socially distant. Leaders were also tasked with finding a new way for employers to meet with graduates as they prepared to enter the real world.

One unique aspect of the virtual commencement was a special message from alumni. “We had 20 alumni answer our call to action to record a video greeting for graduates,” Bond says. “We asked alums to record a quick one- or two-sentence video offering encouraging advice to our graduating students. As one alum said, ‘They need to hear from us now.’”

Immediately after the commencement ceremony, graduates normally would attend an art and design showcase in a giant convention hall to meet with job recruiters face to face. ArtCenter leaders had to come up with a way to shift this event online as well.

A team of six faculty members built their own online platform to host a virtual Grad Show to introduce graduates to employers virtually. Nike, Google, and DreamWorks were among the 80 companies that met with ArtCenter grads using an online “speed dating” process. “Through innovative technology and human-centered design, graduates were able to showcase their work to family, friends, and key corporate contacts,” Bond says.

Holding the Grad Show online resulted in some unexpected benefits. The interactive platform will remain online and will share the Spring 2020’s class Grad Show with new audiences in perpetuity.

“Of course it was unfortunate that graduation was cancelled, but it’s been interesting to see how ArtCenter has been using their design thinking skills to come up with solutions,” says Tricia Sada, a graduating student in product design. “We can extend the Grad Show website into a real showcase of the work that comes out of ArtCenter—like how MIT Media Lab is known for their projects or Harvard Business Review is known for their articles.”

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About the Author:

A former editor for eCampus News, Dennis Pierce is now a freelance education writer.


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