A woman walks down a deserted street wearing a cap and gown

Planning a Virtual Commencement or Postponing

As our Brain Trust discussions continued on Tuesday, March 31 we facilitated a discussion with colleagues from institutions across the country to learn how they’re each approaching Commencement this spring.

As our Brain Trust discussions continued, on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 we facilitated a discussion with colleagues from institutions across the country to learn how they’re each approaching Commencement this spring. 

These times call for hard decision-making, but also radical virtual hospitality and customer service. Commencement ceremonies are a monumental life milestone for graduates and the prospect of missing or not having one this spring on top of being forced off of campus is gut-wrenching for them and their families.

To Cancel or Postpone — That Is the Question

Colleges are in the position of having to make painstaking decisions about what to do with Commencement and surrounding events in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Some schools have opted to cancel, but most we’ve heard from are postponing for later this summer or a future date yet to be determined. Some are even considering using the 2021 Commencement to celebrate both the class of 2020 and 2021. 

Of those postponing, we’re hearing about many ways they are looking into supplementing with a virtual event this spring. Several clients are including key members of the student body — such as a student government president — in their decision making meetings. Babson College, for example, is making sure all commencement-related communications are co-signed by a current student to assure their community that students are involved in this process.

Rather than postpone the ceremony, Virginia Tech has decided to hold a virtual ceremony in May and have invited all graduating students (and two guests) back to campus this fall “to celebrate commencement with a senior tailgate, an ‘Enter Sandman’ entrance into Lane Stadium, and complimentary attendance at the Sept. 26 home football game.” Their May 15 virtual ceremony will include “welcoming comments, speeches, announcements of awards and honors, and — most importantly — the conferring of degrees to the newest Hokie alumni.” They also shared that “graduates of the Class of 2020 are welcome to participate in commencement in December and May 2021.”

Creating Special Moments on the Original Commencement Date

Some Brain Trust attendees are moving forward with printing programs and sending them in care packages to graduates before the date of the original Commencement ceremony. Their “Commencement in a box” will include confetti and other small gifts, hoping to make the day feel special to them, but to also gather some community social content. 

While this may not be an option for larger schools, one attendee revealed that they are making personal phone calls to every graduate to make sure they feel celebrated from somebody in the administration and some are even having their presidents record personal videos for each graduate.

In a similar vein, Grand Valley State University has posted a form on their website where members of the community can submit a note of congratulations to graduates that will be compiled and shared with them.

Making Virtual Events Personal

Clients brainstorming a virtual supplement event are looking at ways to have graduates’ names scrolling on the screen, while continuing with Commencement speakers as planned. They haven’t pinned down the logistics of such an undertaking yet, but anything they are looking for anything they can do to convert physical, tangible experiences into virtual ones.

Commencement Speakers

Schools largely had their featured Commencement speaker and/or honorary doctorate recipients lined up for this spring and may still want to hold on to them, if schedules permit, for a future rescheduled date. We wondered if a separate, supplemental virtual event opens up the opportunity to get a speaker you may not have been able to easily secure for a large, in-person event? One school we spoke with is looking into how technology solutions can facilitate a more intimate Q&A gathering with their graduates and Commencement speaker, that simply wouldn’t be possible at an in-person event.

Maintaining Physical, On-Campus Traditions?

Many schools have unique traditions their graduates look forward to for years. Ithaca College has Senior Splash, where the seniors get to jump in the fountains and float around for a little while, in what are usually very chilly temperatures. Up until recent years, Colgate University had a longstanding tradition of graduates marching through campus with flamed torches the evening before Commencement. Other schools do a champagne toast/reception. The schools we’ve spoken to are looking for ways to maintain their traditions, just on a different date on the calendar.

More Ideas

On April 8, 2020 we reconvened attendees from previous Brain Trust sessions to get an update on how things are going, what's working well, and what challenges they are still encountering.

One college reported plans to use MarchingOrder for a virtual commencement ceremony. Another college with about 250 graduates is creating a video by piecing together clips of faculty and administrators reading one line from stories including "Oh the Places You'll Go" and "The Road Less Traveled," and then using a Star Wars-like marquee to showcase the names of each of the graduates while the alma mater plays in the background. They plan on posting this video on Facebook and Instagram on the date and time in May in which their ceremony was originally scheduled.

Can We Help?

These are uncertain times for higher ed and we'd like to offer a strategic 1:1 session with Rachel Reuben Senor, our VP of Account Strategy. We can discuss enrollment strategies, assistance with crisis communication planning, or just be another set of eyes on your new landing pages or COVID microsite. Schedule a call today.


This blog post was updated on April 9, 2020.