A virtual tassel solves the COVID-19 hassle

Due to the continued uncertainty of COVID-19, FSU will now host a virtual commencement ceremony for both the Class of 2020 and Class of 2021 on Sunday, May 23, 2021.

The event will not only celebrate the graduating Class of 2021, but also the Class of 2020, which had its commencement ceremony postponed last spring.

FSU President F. Javier Cevallos said, “Ideally, my initial hope was to have Commencement in person this May. Unfortunately, restrictions by the state have made us unable to do that at this time.

“What we are trying to do is have a ceremony in the spring, and then in the summer our plan is to have smaller ceremonies for each college department,” he added. “At the same time, we do not want to keep delaying the event.”

Students from the Class of 2020 received a virtual toast last spring. However, they are still awaiting an official send-off from the University.

“Last year, we had a toast on Facebook where we sent students a champagne glass with the FSU logo on it and we had the toast virtually. We had a number of people participate in it. However, I know it is not the same as having an in-person commencement,” said Cevallos.

On Jan. 11,  2021, students received an email from FSU notifying them of the decision to move both commencements to a virtual platform.

Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said, “The reason that we waited as long as we did to make a decision was that we were waiting to see what impact the vaccines had.

“Our University population doesn’t look like it will receive a vaccination until maybe June at the earliest,” she added.

Under current restrictions set by Gov. Charlie Baker, outdoor gatherings are limited to 25 people. The gatherings limit applies to private homes, event venues, and public spaces.

In previous years, the number of students who attended commencement is between 900 to 1,000, not including their guests, faculty, staff, and volunteers.

Executive Assistant to the President Katie Hebert said, “This makes formal commitments and planning for an in-person event nearly impossible as we have no guidance as to when capacity limits will be increased.

“Our Commencement Task Force is actively investigating all options for celebrating our graduates and their accomplishments in person when it is safe to do so,” she added.

Fortunately, this year, the University was given more time to prepare for the possibility of a virtual commencement, which was not the case in the spring of 2020.

Nowak Borrego said, “Last year, we were hopeful that we would have an in-person ceremony, and we also did not have the systems in place to do a well-done virtual commencement, so we decided to postpone it.

“The DCU Center, where we normally have commencement, is also currently a medical facility and I would imagine it will be a vaccine site soon,” she added. “We simply don’t know when our site will be available.

“We discussed doing Commencement outdoors as we have done in the past. However, everyone would still be quite close to each other underneath a tent,” Nowak Borrego said. “Whenever you do anything outside, you are trusting that there will be nice weather, which isn’t always the case in the spring.”

Students are likely curious what the “high-quality” ceremony will look like this spring. Due to the high expectations from both the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021, FSU has been working with a number of companies to provide a well-run ceremony for its students, according to Nowak Borrego.

She explained, “We are working with one company to develop slides for each student which will take the place of when the students normally would walk across the stage.

“We have also hired a photographer to take pictures of students on campus so that they can include a photo of themselves in their slides that will be shown at commencement,” she said.

“We also have another company that we are working with, which will focus on allowing students to provide a recording of the pronunciation of their first and last name which will be given to the professional orator, who will then read the name accurately at Commencement,” said Nowak Borrego.

Despite the University’s efforts, students still have concerns about the potential for technical difficulties during a virtual commencement.

Student Trustee McKenzie Ward said, “I am concerned for students who do not have reliable Wi-Fi, which would make it difficult to watch the Commencement. My biggest worry would be if a student’s Wi-Fi were to go out during the ceremony.

“I am hoping that the University is thinking of technology problems which may occur, and brainstorming ideas to handle them and help students,” she added.

Currently, FSU is working with a company that will help mitigate any Wi-Fi trouble during the ceremony.

Nowak Borrego explained, “The third-party vendor which is hosting the ceremony will have backups within their system should something happen on our campus the day of the ceremony. They have done virtual ceremonies in the past for other universities, so we are confident in their abilities.

“Aside from the technical concerns from students, I know in one of the focus groups we did, many students mentioned how happy they were that their guests who reside in different states would be able to now attend the ceremony, where they would have otherwise been unable to,” she added.

Although many changes have occurred due to COVID-19, the event will closely resemble aspects of what has taken place in previous years, according to an email from Hebert.

The two virtual ceremonies in May will be nearly identical to past ceremonies. The event will have welcomes from the President, Provost, Board of Trustees, and the Class President.

There will be a variety of recognitions and awards, including the Commencement speaker, their address, and presentation of their honorary degree. The Distinguished Faculty will also be presented with their awards, and the student Class Marshals will be recognized.

There will also be the conferral of degrees, which will contain a slideshow of each graduating student – both master’s and bachelor’s – and lastly a closing address from the Alumni Board chair and a performance of the alma mater by a student singer.

Commencement speakers for both the Class of 2020 and the Class of 2021 will deliver addresses during the virtual Commencement.

Lydia Downie, resident and executive director of the Boston homeless shelter Pine Street Inn, will deliver the Commencement address for the Class of 2020. She was selected as the speaker in the spring of 2020.

Congresswoman Katherine Clark will deliver this year’s Commencement address to the graduating Class of 2021.

Cevallos said, “We are delighted that she has agreed to be our speaker. She represents Massachusetts in Washington. She is the third-highest ranking member of the House of Representatives and she is the assistant speaker. She is also local, which is great.”

Despite all the high-quality technology that students have been promised will be provided at the virtual ceremony, Student Trustee Ward is still concerned about how seniors’ time at FSU will be celebrated.

Ward said, “One concern I have heard from students is that they do not feel a virtual commencement is enough to celebrate their accomplishments.

“For many students, they are the first person to graduate from their family, so it is upsetting that instead of getting to walk across the stage to receive their diploma, they are sitting in their living room and opening up a package with their diploma,” she added.

A number of seniors voiced their disappointment in the decision to move the commencement to a virtual setting. With many spaces at FSU still up and running, students still believe an in-person commencement is do-able.

Emily Fosberg, a senior communication arts major, said, “I think if they’re still having people in dorms, in classrooms, and in the dining hall, then they can easily space the graduates out safely on Bowditch field.”

Emma Howes, a senior marketing major, said, “We could have it outside and whoever isn’t comfortable attending could attend virtually.”

Andrew Tiernan, a senior English major, said, “It’s unfortunate that there won’t be an in-person graduation. Both of my siblings attended FSU, so it’ll be a bit weird not going through the same graduation ceremony that they had. I wish there was some way that the school could make an in-person event safe.”

Jack Pierson, a senior business management major, said, “A lot of my friends who graduated last year were pretty bummed out that their commencement was canceled.

“I’m glad that FSU is at least planning to recognize both classes even if the format is not how everyone wants. Graduating college is a major accomplishment for most people,” he added.