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Colleges Return to In-Person Graduations for Class of 2021


University of Pittsburgh history graduate Gina Watkins of Plainfield, NJ., attends her graduation ceremony in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, May 4, 2021. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Colleges Return to In-Person Graduations for Class of 2021
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One year ago, the campuses of American colleges and universities were empty. Most students were sent home in March and did not return for months.

The new coronavirus forced schools to teach using the internet and video call. But it was not just teaching that changed. The graduation ceremony, or commencement, changed, too. Students who had spent four years taking classes together watched the ceremony on their computers from home.

There was no throwing of hats in the air to celebrate the completion of four years of study. There were no group photos or shared tears while saying goodbye to friends and professors.

Students wearing graduation clothing pose for photos at Carnegie Mellon University.
Students wearing graduation clothing pose for photos at Carnegie Mellon University.

In a normal graduation ceremony, students get their diploma and a handshake from a university leader. In 2020, they saw their name and perhaps their photo on a computer screen. It was not what they expected when they started school four years earlier.

Getting back to normal

At the beginning of 2021, most U.S. universities were going to have a video and computer-based graduation. But as more people started to get the COVID-19 vaccine, and the number of new virus cases dropped during the spring, they decided to change their plans.

At the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, Sam Kelly and Kelly Schanes went to their university’s graduation on May 4.

The guest speaker, via video, was Rebecca Skloot, a science writer and a University of Pittsburgh graduate. Her book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, was about a vaccine that helped the world overcome illness. It told the story of a Black woman whose cells were used to create a vaccine for polio. Lacks died without getting credit for her gift to science.

Schanes said the event, while different, was a lot better in person.

“It was very exciting and it did definitely make it feel more concrete…We got to dress up in our cap and gowns, and like, take pictures with all of our friends and stuff, so it was definitely better than the 2020 experience, I think.”

Sam Kelly and Kelly Schanes work outside at the University of Pittsburgh. They recently attend their school's graduation ceremony at a professional baseball stadium.
Sam Kelly and Kelly Schanes work outside at the University of Pittsburgh. They recently attend their school's graduation ceremony at a professional baseball stadium.

Kelly played in the school’s marching band for four years. He was happy to be able to attend the graduation ceremony this year. However, he regrets missing one tradition in his last year of school.

The university is known as “Pitt.” So, at the last football game, the members of the band traditionally form the letters P-I-T-T on the football field. All of the members, except those about to graduate, who are called “seniors,” leave the field. Those remaining receive cheers from everyone in the stands.

Kelly hopes that maybe one day he will get a chance to re-live the tradition.

“Obviously not everybody is involved in a student organization where they have the opportunity to get some sense of closure, but in my instance, it will be nice to come back in the fall and get that.”

A dinosaur statue outside of the Carnegie Institute on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh.
A dinosaur statue outside of the Carnegie Institute on Forbes Avenue in Pittsburgh.

Across town from Pitt is Carnegie Mellon University. The university is known for math, computer science, engineering and robotics.

On May 14, students wearing their graduation clothing walked the sunny campus and took pictures with friends. Others worked to teach a robot how to study trees. Some were playing a ball game.

Students work together teaching an agricultural robot on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.
Students work together teaching an agricultural robot on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

Even though they had finished their work for the year, they were still in Pittsburgh because the university’s graduation was one week away on May 22 and 23.

Cindy Crimmins is a vice president at Carnegie Mellon. She said the school is doing its best to keep the ceremony as close to normal as possible.

Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has its graduation this weekend.
Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh has its graduation this weekend.

“We feel really good about it, we feel like giving the students an in-person experience, even if they can’t have guests, is the right thing to do for them.”

Benjamin Ash, from Atlanta, Georgia, was enjoying the warm weather with friends. He said, “You really only get the chance to graduate from college once.” That is why he and his friends were waiting for the ceremony instead of going home.

“I think we’re just excited to have the opportunity to do it this year.”

Across the country

Across the U.S., many colleges were working to give the same opportunity to their students.

On May 14, Boston University’s students sat apart from each other and wore face coverings. But they were together for graduation. They listened to Ayanna Pressley, the first Black woman to represent Massachusetts in the U.S. Congress. She talked about the lessons she learned from civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. She told the students they need to “imagine a better world, and then work for it.”

Noubar Afeyan is one of the co-founders of Moderna, the company that created one of the successful COVID-19 vaccines. He told the Boston University advanced graduates that they were “pioneers” because of the way they had to find a new way to learn.

At the University of North Carolina, not all of the speakers were there in person. Dr. Anthony Fauci talked to the students by video. He told them to be ready for a difficult future with the changes brought on by the pandemic. But he said their ability to succeed in school gave him confidence that they will “thrive.”

Crimmins, the Carnegie Mellon vice president, said it is important for students to get that feeling of completion and satisfaction after four years of hard work. As a result, the university promised the graduates from this year, and last year, that they will be able to come back to the 2022 graduation for the full experience.

“We don’t have it all worked out yet, but it will be a full commencement,” Crimmins said.

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell wrote this story for Learning English from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Susan Shand was the editor.

How about where you live? How do you feel about the graduation ceremonies this year - should they be in person or virtual? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

campus – n. the area and buildings around a university, college, school, etc.

graduation –n. the act of receiving a diploma or degree from a school, college, or university : the act of graduating

diploma -n. a document which shows that a person has graduated from a school

immortal–adj. living forever

concrete –adj. a way to describe something that feels real and specific

stuff–adj. used in speech to refer to things that are similar to the thing just mentioned

marching band–n. a group of musicians who play instruments while marching together at a parade or sports event

closure –n. a feeling that something has been completed or that a problem has been solved

pioneer –n. a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.

thrive – v. to grow or develop successfully : to flourish or succeed

satisfaction –v. a happy or pleased feeling because of something that you did or something that happened to you

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