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Rescheduling college graduations during a pandemic with no end in sight

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 4/17/2020 12:25:53 PM

As college seniors wrap up their studies from home, their schools are wrestling with rescheduling graduations during a pandemic that has no clear end in sight.

Institutions across the state consulted their students and senior officers, who overwhelmingly said a virtual ceremony could not stand in for the big day. Now, administrators have set to work replanning the biggest event of the year while the threat of coronavirus still looms overhead. 

Logistically, postponing a commencement ceremony is a tall order, but the bigger question is how many of them will be able to return for the event, said Marlin Collingwood, vice president for communications, enrollment and student life at Plymouth State University, which is eyeing a date in the fall for its 2020 graduation.

“The biggest difference is whether or not the entire class will be back and together again. And that’s very sad,” Collingwood said. 

From senior week to formal night and the butterflies that accompany that walk across the stage, Collingwood said many students have been looking forward to their graduation for years.

“This is not the way any of the seniors in college, or high school for that matter, expected their senior year to end,” he said.

All 21 members of the New Hampshire College and University Council, a nonprofit association of public and private institutions, canceled their spring ceremonies in light of COVID-19 and Gov. Chris Sununu’s stay-at-home order. Thus far, only a handful have picked a new date.

Granite State College in Concord traditionally holds its commencement in Plymouth and plans to invite its 2020 graduates to walk with the 2021 seniors next spring. The institution has a high number of adult learners and conducts most of its classes online.

Antioch University New England in Keene is potentially eyeing an August ceremony, according to an online announcement about a month ago, but no official date has been set.

In New London, Colby-Sawyer College’s commencement is slated for Aug. 8, along with senior week activities. 

Gregg Mazzola, the college’s vice president of marketing and communications, said the intent was to schedule it just before students return to campus for classes in the fall — assuming that happens as scheduled — and to reach as many graduates as possible before they start new careers or the next chapter of their lives. 

“We want it to be a full-scale commencement,” he said. “… We want to give the students a day that they deserve, and that means giving them the full experience that they would’ve gotten in May.”

Administrators and students at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge are crossing their fingers for a summer ceremony, albeit a “condensed version” of it. The event’s date and format should be announced mid-May. Meanwhile, New England College in Henniker and Keene State College have both chosen the first weekend in October.

Keene State, which has about 800 graduates this year, has historically celebrated its seniors outdoors on the Fiske Quad. That means weather was a major consideration when rescheduling, said Barbara Preston, the executive assistant to Keene State’s president and the commencement coordinator. There’s a short window from late September through early October when it’s likely to be the safest and most comfortable for graduates and their guests, she wrote in an email.

Several weekends of the season are already booked by other area events, including Sept. 27 for the Clarence DeMar Marathon, which finishes its race on the Fiske Quad and the Monadnock Pumpkin Festival will take over the Cheshire County Fairgrounds Oct. 10. 

“Having commencement the same day would place added pressure on roadways into Keene and the police/security support we need on campus that day,” Preston wrote.

If the pandemic hasn’t released its grip on the community by the fall, the Oct. 3 graduation would be postponed again and graduates will walk in May 2021.

Preston said it takes a full year to organize all of the details for each commencement, from signing contracts with vendors in the fall to emergency planning meetings with first responders at the campus, city and state level. 

“There are caps and gowns to distribute, musicians to line up, programs to be printed, volunteers to be trained, flower vendors and catering” to arrange, she wrote. “We were nine months into planning our ceremony when we needed to postpone it.”

Plymouth State University hopes to have a date nailed down next month for its 1,000 or so graduates. Administrators and members of the Student Government Association are looking at late September or early October, Collingwood said, and considering whether there’s an opportunity to use homecoming as a way to honor the university’s “latest alums.”

While selecting the date soon is crucial to give students and families enough time to plan appropriately, Collingwood said, making that decision now with so much uncertainty “would probably be premature.”

Like Preston, he detailed the arduous process of preparing for the pomp and circumstance each year, which begins not long after the last cap is thrown each May. On a Thursday night for graduate students and a Saturday morning for undergrads, the university’s field house is transformed with a full stage, large screens and seating for about 5,000 people. Contracted vendors set up chairs, audio and visual needs, portable toilets and photography.

“So it’s kind of like a wedding on a big scale,” Collingwood said.

Commencement speakers are typically scheduled two or three years in advance, he added. Slated for this year was Gennet Zewide, a 1973 Plymouth State alumna and the ambassador of Ethiopia to several Asian countries. 

Zewide’s ability to speak to the 2020 graduates “will depend on whether she is able to travel from her home country at that time, and then of course her schedule,” Collingwood said.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit 

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