VCU plans 2021 virtual commencement, departments plan in-person celebrations

Illustration by Lauren Johnson

Sahara Sriraman, Contributing Writer

With spring commencement drawing closer, VCU’s departments and schools are attempting to organize in-person celebrations to honor students while following COVID-19 safety guidelines. 

VCU announced on March 25 its final plan: a virtual university-wide commencement. The announcement stated that in-person celebrations would be up to departments and schools. 

Craft and material studies senior Alex Mihalski said she’s hopeful VCUarts will have celebrations that reflect pre-pandemic normalcy, as she’s always wanted an extravagant graduation.

“Honestly, kind of like ‘High School Musical,’ like everyone in the rows throws their hats up in the air; something kind of cheesy,” Mihalski said.

Mihalski said she wants safe ceremonies to convey a sense of celebration and achievement for graduating from college. 

“I feel like I’ve put in so much work over the past four years and I just want something resembling a graduation to kind of make it feel more real,” Mihalski said.

VCUarts released an announcement stating that the department will hold an in-person event for their graduates on May 15 at the Altria Theater. It will be livestreamed so that families can watch, as only students are allowed to attend.

Professor Gregory Triplett, the senior associate dean for academic affairs for the College of Engineering, said the department is planning on holding a safe in-person celebration for its students that will be livestreamed.

“We’re going to do it. I mean, they worked a really long time, there’s a lot of investment in their education,” Triplett said. “We’re going to try our best to make sure they get that piece back.”

He said as of right now, the department is finalizing whether to hold it at the Engineering Research Building or rent an outside facility, as both would entail graduates splitting into different-sized groups. 

“It does kind of suck that it’s not going to be how I pictured it to be when I came in freshman year,” said senior political science major Myia Samuels.

He said about 80% of the students who filled out the form asking if they would attend an in-person ceremony said they would.

TyRuben Ellingson, associate professor and chair of the department of communication arts, said the department is planning on placing a few professors into different Zoom meetings, so students can join to meet with them. 

The department wanted to do something intimate yet manageable for its students and decide on it early, Ellingson said.

“There’s no perfect solution in a circumstance like this, so I think we’re relying somewhat on the collective wisdom of the faculty for what we thought would work,” Ellingson said.

Senior political science student Myia Samuels said she expected VCU to organize a more celebratory event since she felt there was enough time to prepare.

When she first arrived at VCU, Samuels had expectations that her commencement ceremony would be large and exciting.

“It does kind of suck that it’s not going to be how I pictured it to be when I came in freshman year,” Samuels said.

On April 2, the College of Humanities and Sciences made an announcement stating that none of its departments are allowed in-person gatherings. Currently, it’s planning on splitting its graduates into three in-person celebrations. 

Jennifer Malat, the dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, stated via email that the decision was based on COVID-19 physical distance guidelines, as the space would allow the groups to each have a safe event. 

Samy El-Shall, the chair of the department of chemistry, said his department is planning a virtual celebration on May 14.

El-Shall said the first two times the department held this type of celebration were successful, as each student is individually recognized and many have voiced positive feedback.

“Several students emailed that they were very happy with the virtual ceremony, and it was so successful,” El-Shall said. “We were happy to see that.”

Scott Breuninger, the dean of VCU’s Honors College, said most students preferred an in-person event. 

Although there is no finalized plan, the Honors College plans to have a ceremony at the Stuart C. Siegel Center with all graduates. The event will be livestreamed, and graduates will be able to social distance, he said. Normally, university-wide commencement is held at the center.

“We’re trying to figure out what else goes along with that, so that both the students, the faculty and the staff can all be safe,” Breuninger said.

Political science and urban planning senior Tessa Demarest said she hopes her departments, the College of Humanities and Sciences and the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs, will plan safe, in-person celebrations. 

She said it’s a good idea to leave the decision up to each school since they’re all different sizes.

“It’s hard because you want to give people adequate time to prepare for these events but, at the same time, the virus doesn’t really tell us what it’s going to do,” Demarest said.

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