‘Pandemic classes’ graduate in person this year as colleges seek to reconnect

For many who graduated from college during the COVID-19 pandemic, a video call replaced a traditional commencement. Colleges hustled to organize remote ceremonies and some innovative students even created a virtual Minecraft graduation for all to take part in. But cyberspace can only offer so much.

As the Class of 2022 crosses the stage this spring, colleges are reconsidering what they can do for the two classes who turned their tassels in quarantine. Some institutions, like the University of Oregon and the University of Maryland, Global Campus, opened this year’s ceremonies to alumni from the past two years.

The University of Alaska Anchorage elected to go a step further and gave the classes of 2020 and 2021 their own event. The university hosted a reunion commencement for the classes of 2020 and 2021 at the end of April, bringing together classmates who may have spent their last years in class interacting on Zoom.

“The only question in our minds was how, not if,” said Sean Parnell, a former Alaska governor who is now chancellor of UAA. “We really wanted to celebrate our graduates and to be sure they knew we recognized their achievement.”

Given the physical separation necessitated by COVID-19, students struggled with increased levels of academic distress and social anxiety during that time, according to a Penn State University survey of 85 college counseling centers. These challenges colored the higher ed experience, leaving many students and institutions with a dampened sense of community.

Parnell said he would encourage other colleges to organize in-person activities for their pandemic graduates, saying it will create both a more connected student body and alumni network.

Making it happen

The UAA reunion commencement took place the evening before the Class of 2022’s ceremony, and the two events largely shared resources and volunteers. The price for hosting the extra graduation was low since the equipment and decorations had already been rented and set up, according to a university spokesperson. UAA incurred some nominal expenses for an additional set of printed programs and an extra night of security and janitorial services.

“Universities need to take every opportunity to demonstrate that students really are first,” Parnell said. “Does it cost a little more? Yes. Does it take a little more time? Yes. Is it worth it? Totally.”

Parnell was named chancellor in May 2021, a little over a year into the pandemic. He said the administration made it clear to students from the beginning that their graduations would eventually be celebrated.

“This was our first chance to keep that promise,” he said. 

The university initially intended to space out the graduations, giving students who graduated in 2020 a commencement this year and those who would have walked across the stage in 2021 their own event next year, according to Parnell. He ultimately decided to combine the two in order to celebrate last year’s graduates sooner.

“We needed to put a capstone on both graduation years, so as not to drag out our promise or the effect of the pandemic on our graduates’ education,” Parnell said.

Rebuilding school spirit

The promise to make up an in-person commencement extended to the original student commencement speakers. 

Alex Jorgensen and Clare Baldwin were selected to speak to the Class of 2020 but ultimately had to share their comments in a virtual ceremony. Two years later, they got to address their classmates in person.

At the ceremony, the pair discussed their academic careers’ anticlimactic ending and the decision to join the celebration two years later.

“We initially felt the moment to celebrate had passed,” said Baldwin, now an administrative specialist at her alma mater. “But the more we thought about it, the more we realized this moment is truly worth celebrating.” 

The sense of community UAA provided was just as important as its academics, she said. The reunion commencement gave students a chance to recapture that feeling.

“Let’s be honest, sitting at home and watching your name flash across a screen is not the same as walking this stage and being cheered on by your friends and family,” said Jorgensen, now the director of communications at Alaska AFL-CIO.

That solidarity was exactly what Parnell wanted for UAA’s alumni.

“It was a community-building experience, graduates seeing each other again or, in some cases, for the first time,” Parnell said. “This is how we demonstrate that we value our students and our graduates. And I think higher ed is better for it.”

Other colleges planned similar reunions. The University of Maine scheduled a dual commencement for the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021 for May 8. New York University will do the same May 18, hours after its regularly scheduled Class of 2022 ceremony. Harvard Business School has scheduled reunion activities for both of its pandemic classes later in the month.

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