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‘Exploring Options’ Not The Reassurance Graduates Want

Throughout college, whenever I’d call my grandmother or see her over breaks, she’d constantly bring up my graduation. It felt like sometimes we were having the same conversations over and over again, but I could see how excited she was for that moment of celebration, no matter how far in the distance it seemed.

We’d walk through the entire weekend of events like the Schreyer Medal Ceremony to the Paterno Fellows Program Graduation to my two academic colleges’ ceremonies. She’d ask questions about how Penn State does it compared to my sister’s and cousins’ schools. And say how grateful she was that it wasn’t outside like at Rutgers and The College of New Jersey, the last two commencements she attended and where she got two bad sunburns. And keep tabs on how my thesis was coming, sometimes suggesting I not “go to all those games” when I could be working on it as I tried to explain to her what SPSS was. And constantly bring up how my dad needed to make sure he got a hotel reservation for them a year in advance because a friend of her whose granddaughter went to Penn State needed to do that.

The original plan is off for now due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has canceled events around the world over the last few weeks and through the next few months. On Monday, the university announced it will stream a virtual ceremony with formal remarks, musical performances and sharable digital slides honoring each graduate and “exploring options to invite graduates back to campuses to be recognized for your accomplishments.”

I’m sure most of my classmates have had similar experiences, where either they, their families, or the faculty and staff who had helped them get to this point had always looked forward to that ceremonious culmination of their college careers. I’m sure it’s particularly upsetting for students who are the first in their families to graduate college or those whose parents had been planning to travel from another country and make their first visit to campus for what should’ve been a most special occasion.

Again, like Onward State editor Jim Davidson, a friend I made in my first college class, wrote a few weeks ago, “However cliché the commencement speeches become, however many pictures you’re forced to pose for in front of the Lion Shrine, it all offers a sense of closure to a formative stage of life.”

The closure and celebration that are supposed to mark this time in our lives have been put on hold due to a pandemic that is killing thousands and changing every facet of life as we know it.

I’m past being upset about the circumstances we’re facing because they’ve become so normalized. I’ve instead moved on to taking issue with the way we are responding to it and planning to move on from it. And it seems all too expected that Penn State, one of the last schools to cancel in-person classes, is once again lagging behind and not providing concrete plans with students’ best interests in mind.

Bucknell, one of the first universities to completely move online for the remainder of the semester, has also been on the forefront of outlining plans for what’s next. Its spring 2020 commencement has already been penciled in to take place July 18 on campus and in person — with the clearly communicated deadline of June 5 for another potential reschedule, should it be necessary. Although this plan might seem a bit forward given the way things are going, haven’t all the schedule changes this past month at first seemed outlandish and overdone before being revealed to be the right move?

In reading the letter Bucknell President John Bravman sent to seniors at his university, it’s not hard to notice a much different tone than his counterpart 71 miles away in State College.

Here are a few highlights from Bravman’s letter to graduates:

  • I will do everything I can to ensure that you and your families have the opportunity to celebrate together.
  • We felt strongly that postponing rather than canceling this treasured tradition was the best solution.
  • You have my word that we will honor your success in every way we can under the circumstances.

And here’s what Barron offered as solace in his own letter Monday:

  • This is not how you envisioned your last semester at Penn State; this is not how I ever could have imagined your last semester at Penn State.
  • While we cannot be together in person to mark your accomplishments, I hope that you, along with your friends and families will join us online to celebrate your academic achievements.
  • This change to a virtual ceremony should not detract from the pride that you and your families should take in your accomplishments to earn your Penn State degree.
  • We share your desire to come together in person, and are exploring options to invite graduates back to campuses to be recognized for your accomplishments.

Though much more long-winded, Barron doesn’t come close to providing the same degree of reassurance as Bravman. And at a time like this, that is what students need from their university’s figurehead. When it comes to commencement, students have resoundingly demonstrated this “desire to come together in person.” But all we’ve gotten from Barron is three detached letters making monumental announcements and a town hall (which admittedly provided plenty of clarification to questions we had).

After Barron’s email had been sent out and caused plenty of controversy among students, a press release posted by Penn State News included a more affirmative quote from Provost Nick Jones about having “all hands on deck to do everything we can to properly recognize and celebrate the fantastic achievements of the Class of 2020. The university’s official Twitter account also curiously tweeted at student media outlets that it was “committed to inviting the Class of 2020 back for in-person celebrations when public health guidelines allow.”

In contrast to Penn State’s disjointed communication, Bravman remains so committed to hosting a ceremony that he even suggested a potential worst-case scenario of doing so next spring — although he’s very clear that “We all hope that this is not the case.”

There’s no question that commencement shouldn’t be held in May. Or even in June. But it just feels like a physical ceremony is nothing more than an afterthought: A virtual ceremony should suffice, and if possible, maybe we can all get together in a few months after you’ve all gotten your degrees and medals shipped to you.

All we have now is the consolation that “a virtual ceremony should not detract from the pride you and your families should take in your accomplishments.” Not the university president’s word to honor students’ successes “in every way we can under the circumstances.”

And after students have paid tens of thousands of dollars and worked tirelessly to perpetuate the university’s great legacy during the last four years, it’s beyond disappointing to imagine loading yet another Zoom meeting or livestream at home when I could’ve been there in person, dressed in cap and gown, and shaking hands with administrators as I accept the piece of paper that’s been in my (and my grandmother’s) sights for four years now.

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About the Author

Anthony Colucci

Anthony Colucci was once Onward State’s managing editor and preferred walk-on honors student who majored in psychology and public relations. Despite being from the make-believe land of Central Jersey, he was never a Rutgers fan. If you ever want to know how good Saquon Barkley's ball security is, ask Anthony what happened when he tried to force a fumble at the Mifflin Streak. If you want to hear the story or are bored and want to share prequel memes, follow @_anthonycolucci on Twitter or email him at [email protected] All other requests and complaints should be directed to Onward State media contact emeritus Steve Connelly.

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