Every college student dreams of the moment they can move their tassel to the left side of their cap on graduation day and officially become a part of the alumni group. After the University of Michigan announced in early February that this year’s Spring Commencement would be held virtually, it became clear that for many 2021 graduates that the opportunity to walk into Michigan Stadium on graduation day as a student and walk out as an alum would be delayed, if not completely eliminated. However, after much rallying from U-M students and parents, it was announced on March 25 that an in-person option would be available to graduates in addition to the virtual ceremony. While the University compromised to give 2021 graduates a semi-normal graduation in the Big House, the experience is likely to fall short of expectations.
There are clear health concerns for holding such a large in-person event, despite the University’s assurance that they will continue to monitor the spread of COVID-19 on campus and strictly follow the state’s public health guidelines for large gatherings. However, another issue is that the ceremony is limited to students: One of the guidelines the University has put in place to comply with capacity limits and safety protocols is prohibiting guests from the ceremony. Though guests can still watch the commencement virtually, it doesn’t compare to watching a loved one from the stadium’s stands as they celebrate one of their biggest achievements.
Graduation is not only a day of celebration for those students earning their degrees but also for everyone who has helped support them along the way. For many of us, the journey through college is only possible with the help of our family, friends and peers. Because of that, graduation ceremonies are not just for the students; those who supported students, whether financially, emotionally or academically, deserve to celebrate side-by-side with their loved ones. Especially for first-generation students, the moment they walk across the stage is lifetimes in the making and symbolizes their families’ necessary, but still noble sacrifices.
Though I was initially disappointed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate with my peers at an in-person graduation ceremony this spring, the opportunity to celebrate at home with my family was a bearable consolation. Especially with family not in Ann Arbor, the virtual ceremony presented the opportunity to celebrate with my loved ones that wouldn’t have been able to attend even if there was an in-person option. However, a dilemma graduating students now face is to either celebrate in-person without their loved ones cheering them on from the stands or, on the other hand, to celebrate virtually and miss out on the chance to conclude their studies in Michigan Stadium with their fellow classmates.
My enthusiasm upon learning about the in-person graduation option quickly faded when I realized that the ceremony I have looked forward to for so long will fall considerably short of my hopes. The socially distanced seating is necessary, but I fear it will only reinforce the feelings of loneliness and isolation many students have faced throughout the past year. Ending college careers in a pandemic means making sacrifices, which is something college students have become accustomed to.
However, sacrificing celebrating graduation without those closest to us is a sacrifice many may be unwilling to make. Before the University announced the in-person option, 2020 and 2021 graduates were given the opportunity to attend a future in-person ceremony of their choosing. Even though the in-person experience may have been delayed, at least one could look forward to a graduation ceremony more typical of the normal ceremony proceedings. Now, graduating students are faced with either taking the risk to attend the ceremony in person or completely forgoing an opportunity many spend years looking forward to.
The two options bring into question the equity of the entire experience. For those who cannot attend due to health concerns, the in-person ceremony is not even an option. Additionally, with many students not on campus this semester, and with the decision being announced only a little over a month before the ceremony, those who cannot make it back to campus on such short notice or due to financial concerns are also excluded from the opportunity. While the virtual option is always available, it can’t compare to graduating in-person surrounded by your peers.
The most important part of an in-person graduation ceremony is being able to attend it safely and surrounded by the people who helped get you there. Without both those aspects, it puts into question whether making those sacrifices for the sake of a timely ceremony is worth it. If nothing else, the University should allow 2020 and 2021 graduates who do not feel comfortable attending the Spring Commencement ceremony in person the opportunity to attend a future ceremony that hopefully is lower-risk and open to guests.
Theodora Vorias is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.