The past two years have forced higher education institutions to rethink everything—including how to celebrate graduation—with public health protocols shifting rapidly. And while we are hopeful that the pandemic will be less of an issue going forward, there is always uncertainty in the world that could impact event planning at universities. However, the lessons we learned can help us prepare for any contingency. Plus, there are some advantages we can carry forward from our shift to virtual and hybrid ceremonies that can help us improve commencement for all stakeholders.
Reflecting on Covid Commencements
The year 2020 saw most in-person commencement ceremonies canceled and many variations on how to hold a virtual event. That year, the adjustments were quick, the timeline to change plans short, and some colleges less prepared than others to make a celebration of achievement special on a streaming platform. If we think back to that time, it’s hard not to empathize with how stressed and unsure we were and then to applaud our teams’ heroic efforts to make the best of a bad situation.
In 2021, there was hope that more ceremonies could occur in person, and some schools invited their 2020 graduates to participate in the traditions they missed. But by then, we had adjusted our future expectations to include the possibility that Covid state guidelines would change rapidly and often. We knew we could not predict the exact situation we’d be confronted with come June. Yet our experience with hybrid and online classes and events made us more comfortable with the technologies. In addition, we had stepped up our communications to keep families, students, faculty, and staff in the loop for quick pivots that might be necessary. And true to form, many colleges and universities had to modify their plans multiple times as conditions changed.
Celebrations of Achievement with Unusual Arrangements
Schools employed many different hybrid, in-person, and virtual options during the previous two years. The entirely virtual ceremony can use many features to make it memorable, and colleges did their best. Many schools allowed the students to be in-person and socially distanced for the ceremony while requiring family and friends to participate virtually. Commencements were moved to outdoor stadiums to facilitate social distancing, and institutions often broke up the larger ceremony into multiple smaller group events to allow for social distancing and limits on public gatherings. Institutions created opportunities for students to send in video or slide presentations for inclusion in in-person or virtual settings. Some colleges even tried drive-in or drive-through commencements. No matter the exact arrangements, each solution had pros and cons. But they did provide some sense of closure and celebration for graduating students and their families. Plus, they gave us some examples of what might work for future necessities.
Communication is Crucial
Multichannel communication with a centralized strategy has become the norm for schools. The uncertainty of pandemic ceremonies forced all colleges to beef up their communications protocols to include website, text, email, and even automated call messaging for essential changes. For special public events like graduation ceremonies, this has added requirements. Not only must the public relations team keep staff, students, and parents informed of any changes, but the public through media channels as well.
The multichannel communications strategy has proven to be an effective tool for communication between faculty and students. Many colleges and universities now employ an omnichannel strategy for campus-wide communications. The team planning and publicizing the events during commencement, which can vary in department affiliation or title, are working year-round to make the process go smoothly, and adopting multichannel communications is a must. Partnering with the public relations teams from other campus departments can help event planners implement their multichannel strategy or piggyback off established university communications channels.
Hybrid Commencement Serves Many Populations
While in-person events are becoming possible for most schools, there are numerous good reasons to retain hybrid events within graduation planning. If video streaming and infrastructure are in place, any shift needed for any reason—natural disaster, pandemic, or something completely unforeseen—colleges will be prepared for a possible remote event. But beyond preparedness for quick pivots, there are other benefits from maintaining virtual commencement access.
There are always family members who may not be able to come in person—overseas, or elderly relatives may not be able to travel to the campus. Still, they will be delighted to attend a virtual celebration. Working adults may not be able to participate due to scheduling constraints but will appreciate a recorded option. Also, virtual events can have captions for non-native English speakers and English captions or American Sign Language interpreters for the deaf community. A virtual option may better serve people with physical disabilities or severe anxiety as well. Finally, a microsite with all types of commencement content, including places for students and well-wishers to comment, can be terrific for everyone, including those who attend in-person. With the multitude of circumstances and personal needs of today’s school populations, the virtual portion of the event may have deep significance for many students and their loved ones.
Commencement Is the Icing on the Cake
Graduating from college is significant for all students. For institution staff, the very heart of the work of education is to help students get through the accomplishment of attaining a degree. This milestone is why we work hard to recruit students, support them through their time in school, and usher them out into the world with a new credential to help them make their dreams come true. While we can add new technologies to support the celebration of graduating students, the upshot is that it is a big deal—we need to make it exceptional now and into the future.