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Online commencement created to recognize graduating students

In the wake of COVID-19, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County canceled all events that could lead to large gathering of people, including the commencement ceremony scheduled to honor students graduating this spring semester.

In an email sent out on Apr. 20, the Commencement Committee announced to the Class of 2020 that there was an online celebration planned to recognize the students’ achievements and success in getting their degrees. The decision was made after a survey was sent to all students who were eligible for graduation this spring. Out of the 2000 students who were sent the survey, more than 600 replied, with two responses being “overwhelmingly” popular, according to Erin Johnson, the Associate Director of Special Events. The first one was the request to have some form of recognition in May when the original commencement ceremony would have been conducted. The second response was to have the ceremony postponed until it is safe to have large gatherings.

“We want to celebrate the graduates as they normally would have been celebrated. The decision on how was based on the feedback from the questionnaire,” Johnson said.

To recognize students as they graduate, the Commencement Committee came up with an online forum that graduates could easily share with their friends and family, although they are being careful to acknowledge that it is not a replacement for the traditional commencement ceremony.

“We are not using the word ceremony for the online celebration because [the ceremony is] what will happen as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Marie Lilly, the Director of Community Engagement within the Office of Institutional Advancement. “The ceremony is two-and-a-half hours long, people are not going to watch that on the internet … [The online celebration] will be [more] condensed and have more of an informal element to it. It is really a place for us to come together and celebrate.”

For the online event, graduating students are asked to submit a recording of the proper pronunciation of their name along with a photo of themselves. It was suggested that students take the photo in their cap and gown or in UMBC gear. The photos will be compiled in a slideshow, in which each student has their own slide dedicated to the honors they have achieved throughout their time at UMBC. The slides will be available for viewing along with several speeches on the morning of May 20 for undergraduate students and May 21 for graduate students.

During the planning period of the online event, it was decided that the speeches would be recorded prior to the event as opposed to being delivered through a live stream.

“Trying to get everyone together to do a live stream ends up being too difficult. We don’t want to disappoint anybody and have things freeze halfway through someone’s remarks,” Johnson said. “The best and safest way to make sure everyone got the full functionality was to make sure it was prerecorded.”

The speakers will include UMBC President Freeman Hrabowski, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan and representatives from campus faculty. For the undergraduate online event, the class of 2020’s valedictorians will speak. Similarly, the president of the Graduate Student Association will speak at the graduate school event.

“The issue is we normally have many more speakers and, even in addition to the speakers, we have the platform party which is … all the vice presidents, all the deans, [and] someone from the [university] system,” Lilly said. “We just can’t get them all in so that’s why it has been so hard.”

The option is also being kept open for graduates to return to campus for a future in-person commencement ceremony. Depending on the state of the coronavirus, students could potentially participate in the commencement held in December later this year. The goal is to give recent graduates the opportunity to partake in celebrations that cannot be replicated online, such as walking across the stage.

“People overwhelmingly wanted to make sure we would have an in-person ceremony so we are planning on doing that when everything is safe,” Johnson said. “We may have to end up having another ceremony or something like that, but we will make it work no matter what it is.” According to Johnson, the university will adjust the way they run ceremonies to accommodate the influx of graduates participating in the next commencement.

“One of my favorite things about commencement is watching everybody’s face on [commencement day] and seeing their joy,” Johnson said. “It really makes me sad that we can’t do that together this spring so I hope [the students] know that we are with them and that we are looking forward to celebrating in person with them too.”