Changing College Graduation Plans During The Pandemic Most of the class of 2020 experienced canceled or online-only graduation ceremonies, but this year many colleges are finding creative ways to celebrate their graduates in person.
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Pandemic Pomp and Circumstance: Graduation Looks Different This Year (Again)

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Pandemic Pomp and Circumstance: Graduation Looks Different This Year (Again)

Pandemic Pomp and Circumstance: Graduation Looks Different This Year (Again)

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It is college graduation season again after an academic year that looked like no other. Last year, most ceremonies were canceled or online only. This year, some colleges have found creative ways to celebrate in person. NPR's Elissa Nadworny joins us now.

Hey, Elissa.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So give us a sense of what graduation looks like this year.

NADWORNY: Well, it's quite a range. So some schools are doing virtual only again, so everybody watches a link online. The University of Michigan was originally going to be virtual only but ended up inviting just graduates to come watch together in the stadium, which happens to be the largest in the nation.

Senior Jasmine Williams was there in what they call the Big House this weekend with her friends.

JASMINE WILLIAMS: Just feeling the energy of everybody once this fight song came on and being able to sing it together one last - in a year and a half of, like, limiting expectations, it definitely exceeded the ones that I did have.

NADWORNY: Her family - many of them graduated from Michigan themselves - held a Zoom party and watched it from home.

CHANG: Aw. OK, so Michigan was, like, a hybrid situation, but then there are a lot of schools holding actual in-person events, right?

NADWORNY: That's right. Some large universities, like the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech, are hosting a bunch of smaller ceremonies to comply with social distancing. Others, including Iowa State, are hosting large ceremonies in football stadiums or outdoor arenas. Most are limiting the number of people who can attend. They're spacing graduates out. Some are encouraging vaccines or have COVID-19 testing requirements. And the planning for this has been really a challenge because graduations are huge events.

CHANG: Yeah.

NADWORNY: And planning begins months ago. I talked with Steve Bennett, who oversees Syracuse University's commencement, about this.

STEVE BENNETT: This may be the most challenging special event that our special events team have put together maybe ever. And it's because we keep having to plan towards a moving target.

NADWORNY: So Syracuse is planning to have multiple smaller ceremonies in their stadium. Everyone must be fully vaccinated or show proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test.

CHANG: OK. And I understand that you came across some ideas that were a little outside-of-the-box. Tell us about those.

NADWORNY: Well, my favorite is California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, Calif. Their graduation will be celebrated as a drive-in style event at the Ventura County Fairgrounds. So every graduate brings a carful of people, and you actually tune your radio - your car radio to hear the event.

CHANG: I love it. It sounds so old-fashioned, like a whole (laughter) carload of family and friends. It's kind of cool and intimate.

NADWORNY: Totally, and that's, like, what graduation is about. It's more about friends and family, the support network than even the graduate. I've been staying in touch with Jamontrae Christmon. He's a senior at Tennessee State University in Nashville. And TSU had their in-person ceremony at the football stadium on Saturday. Here's Jamontrae.

JAMONTRAE CHRISTMON: It was different. Everybody had on their masks. The seats were kind of more spread out. I couldn't have everybody there that I wanted to, but I will take that any day of the week over having it on Zoom.

NADWORNY: Not many people in his family had even gone to college, let alone graduated. And so Saturday was a big deal in his family. His parents, his uncle, his sister - they were all there at Hale Stadium with him.

CHRISTMON: When I got on the stage and they said, Jamontrae Christmon - and I could just hear my family just scream. You just heard them over everybody (laughter). And it kind of brought tears to my eyes to think, like, I promised my parents that I was going to do this, and I did it.

CHANG: Wow. That is so awesome. That is NPR's Elissa Nadworny, who covers higher education for NPR.

Thank you, Elissa.

NADWORNY: Oh, you bet. Thank you.

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