As colleges across the country continue wrestling over how to celebrate commencement, Salisbury University is hoping to preserve a little normality for its spring graduates.
SU is working toward a proposal to offer spring graduates in-person elements for their commencement celebration in addition to a new style of the virtual graduation ceremony experienced by the winter’s graduating class, according to Provost Dr. Karen Olmstead and Provost Project Manager Kim Meyer.
Spring graduates would be able to select individual time slots to bring two guests to Sea Gull Stadium, where a commencement stage will be assembled, over a period of a few days following virtual commencement ceremonies.
Meyer said the proposal would provide graduates with an opportunity to walk across the stage and get photographed in regalia both on-stage and across campus without requiring any chairs, nor having surfaces that need to be cleaned after use.
Family members would also be offered the chance to hood graduates to avoid having faculty or staff members break social distancing protocols.
The Sea Gull Stadium location would also mark the first-ever outdoor commencement event for SU, as all graduations in prior years have taken place in the Wicomico Civic Center.
The virtual segment of the proposal would include several more personalized commencement ceremonies, with one for each academic school, rather than announcing the names of the entire graduating class in a single setting.
Meyer believes ceremonies for each school would provide a “unique flavor” with student and faculty speakers from each school being able to address their own program’s graduates.
Each online “celebration” would still have common elements, however, like messages from SU’s president, provost and others.
The move to explore alternatives came after SU received feedback on the SU’s fully virtual winter commencement ceremony from graduates and speaking with fellow University System of Maryland schools, which have all been hesitant to explore in-person options, Meyer said.
Olmstead did call the potential in-person activities “very tentative” and that the office is still in the “very early planning” stage.
SU President Charles Wight expressed similar hesitation during the university’s recent campus-wide virtual town hall.
“If we are able to see the positivity rates in our county and in our state come down sufficiently during spring semester, then we are open to the possibility of having some in-person components to the commencement activities,” Wight said. “But, for right now, most of our planning is around virtual activities.”
Olmstead said the final decision on whether to proceed with in-person aspects will be made by the president’s cabinet, which includes representation from shared governance groups such as the university’s Student Government Association, Graduate Student Council, Staff Senate and Faculty Senate, in accordance with advice from the campus health committee.
“We'll have to take into account the infection rate in the wider area, not just the SU campus, where we're doing so beautifully … because people from around the state potentially would be coming if we allowed two guests per graduate,” Olmstead said.
Olmstead said the key focuses of COVID-19 prevention measures would be protecting graduates’ nonlocal family members, touchless mandates — such as no hugging or handshaking — and social distancing.
Though mask-wearing would be enforced while around others, there is a goal for each graduate to have an opportunity to be distanced far enough on stage to have a mask-free photo.
Both Meyer and Olmstead gave their reasons for why they believe in-person commencement activities deserve being explored.
“It's such a special day … families are so excited, and our graduates are so excited, [so] if we can help to [give] a little bit of that feeling after such a difficult year, it would be lovely,” Meyer said.
“Particularly for students whose families haven't traditionally gone to college, if you're the first in your family to graduate from college, it is a huge deal … degree attainment is so tied to social mobility and just sheer accomplishment in grit, that it's a really emotional moment,” Olmstead said.
Olmstead said 2020 SU graduates should not expect to be welcomed back for their promised in-person commencement ceremony this time around, however.
“We'd really like to wait and invite them back for a really normal walk across stage and [when] they're the VIPs on the podium,” Olmstead said. “Just because, what we're planning now, it's not in-person commencement …it's your photo-op.”
All in-person activities would be livestreamed on the SU website, as well as Facebook and YouTube, which were used for December’s virtual commencement ceremony.
While the university’s academic calendar currently lists May 14 as the tentative date for spring graduation, Olmstead said the expanded proposal would likely require events to run from May 14 through the weekend until May 16.
By JAKOB TODD
Featured image courtesy of BestColleges.