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The Significance of Graduation

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Our local paper arrived this morning amid mid-40-degree temperatures, dark skies and a cold drizzle. Just another dreary lockdown day here in Pennsylvania. I was hoping for some good news as I scanned the front-page headlines. No such luck.

These disappointing words spelled out a nearby high school's plight: "AASD seniors to have virtual ceremony." Altoona Area School District has decided that seniors from Altoona Area High School will graduate online this year. While Blair County, in which AAHS is located, remains on lockdown, according to Governor Tom Wolf's guidelines, school board members had to make a decision about graduation since time is growing short and COVID-19 restrictions remain in place.


The process for this virtual graduation is interesting, if not challenging. According to the Altoona Mirror's report:

"... The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the cancellation of this year's traditional June 5 ceremony at Mansion Park.

At Monday's Committee of the Whole meeting, high school Principal Andrew Neely told the board that [521] graduates will do a "Senior Spotlight," in which seniors, dressed in caps and gowns, will be brought to the school where they individually will walk in front of a video camera, state their name and turn their tassel.

Starting today, seniors will be scheduled to come to the school to pick up their caps and gowns. Neely said the process will follow social distancing guidelines.

"Seniors will be given a date and time to come in for their caps and gowns. Those will be in 20-minute increments," he said. "They are all going to be required to wear face masks."

Neely said the senior spotlights will be recorded on May 18 in hour slots, with 25 students per slot. The event will not be broadcast live but will be recorded and edited together with music by the school's broadcasting teacher Doug Sipes and posted for viewing on June 5.

"It won't be live, but it will be broadcast on the actual day of what would have been commencement, June 5," he said. "At that point, Mrs. (Sharon) Bream can declare them graduated as board president."

I was tempted to call the school to clarify whether or not seniors would be required to wear their masks as they're recorded turning their tassels, but this is the best Altoona officials can do for the Class of 2020 currently, although there is some hope for a better ceremony:

Neely said if social distancing requirements are relaxed later in the summer, a live commencement will be held 10 a.m. July 25 at the Jaffa Shrine [an indoor venue].

"It's hard to say what is going to be allowed and what is not going to be allowed," he said.

If a live commencement is held on July 25, a senior only dance will be held in the Jaffa banquet hall on the same evening.

The Class of 2020 Misses out on Milestones

I empathize with this year's high school and college seniors. Graduations are very special events that give a firm note of finality to eras of academic life. This got me to wondering about the emotions of others in the Class of 2020. How do they feel about their virus-derailed graduations?

National Public Radio's Elissa Nadworny investigated this issue from the college perspective in No Caps, No Gowns: For Many In The Class Of 2020, Commencement Is Called Off. News of the changes dictated by the COVID-19 did not land lightly for UVA senior Nathan Stewart when "an email landed in their inboxes: Classes were moving online and graduation was indefinitely postponed."

"Honestly, my friends and I just immediately started crying," says Stewart. Throughout his four years at UVA, graduation had been a major motivator. When he and his friends were having tough days, they'd tell each other, "Just wait till graduation day. We're all walking across the stage together and we'll get our diplomas. It'll be so worth it then."

This is what I meant when I referred to graduation as a note of finality. It's a capstone of sorts that puts an exclamation mark on all the good and not-so-good times accumulated over the course of a college (or high school) education. Of course, the students aren't alone in their respective dilemmas. Administrators, like AASD's mentioned above, are also in a difficult position.

"... Administrators and college presidents are scrambling to figure out what to do about graduation this year. How can they acknowledge students' hard work and success, while still maintaining social distancing amid the outbreak of coronavirus?

Many colleges across the country have outright cancelled graduations, others, such as Harvard and Miami University in Ohio, have scheduled virtual ceremonies. Some students have taken things into their own hands and created their own ceremonies — on a reconstructed campus — through Minecraft." ...

Parents Suffer as Well

Parents obviously have a significant emotional and financial investment in their children's higher education. One California State University, Los Angeles senior spoke of her parents' anticipation and disappointment over canceled graduation.

... "When they cancelled graduation, it was exactly 60 days prior to our scheduled commencement," she explains. She knows that because her mother and father kept track, counting down the days, crossing each one off on their calendar. When she told them it was off, her mom cried. "My parents didn't get to finish high school," she says, "so for them, seeing their daughter graduating college was just beyond their dreams." ...

Opinions vary. In my discussions with seniors and parents within my network, I've been surprised by some pragmatic attitudes about canceled or deferred ceremonies. One local family I spoke with was almost relieved that they didn't have to make the cross-country journey for graduation.

Due to the family's recent economic circumstances and medical issues, the costs involved for them to attend an on-campus graduation would have been well beyond their budget, although they were willing to make the sacrifice had a traditional graduation been scheduled. The senior-student son was happy that his parents didn't have to somehow find the finances to make the long journey. He told me that his main concern right now is finding work so that he might be able to help his parents through a difficult time.

This practical attitude is also reflected by one of the students mentioned in Nadworny's article.

... "It's just a ceremony," says Alexandrea Mares, who lives with her grandparents and attends California State University, Northridge. Right now, she says she's far more concerned with keeping herself and her family healthy. "You know what? My health and their health is what matters most," she says. "At the end of the day, it's the degree that you get and I'm gonna get the degree either way at the end of the semester."

That's not to say she isn't extremely proud of her six-year journey: "Even though we're not having a graduation, I'm still excited to get my diploma in the mail and hang it up on the wall." ...

I received my college diploma in the mail, too, choosing not to attend my college graduation. There was no pandemic back then, but my family's circumstances dictated that more important priorities ruled. I didn't regret my decision. Frankly, I would have also chosen not to attend my high school graduation, but I did. I've been a "social-distancer," one way or the other, most of my life, I guess.

There's an important lesson to be learned from this year's graduation dislocations, in my view. The lesson is: Real life is not a straight line. Be flexible. Aside from the wisdom and maturity this extraordinary time bestows, it also creates a great cache of stories that today's seniors can pass on to their grandchildren when they ask, "What did you do during the Great Pandemic?" Now that's significant.

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