Last year, for the first time in Swarthmore’s history, commencement was held virtually due to an emergency campus evacuation because of rapidly rising U.S. COVID-19 cases; this year, however the Class of 2021 will have two commencements. After a period of uncertainty, President Valerie Smith announced in an email to the senior class on April 8 that Swarthmore will be hosting an in-person commencement ceremony in addition to a virtual one.
Originally, Swarthmore planned on having one virtual celebration. As COVID-19 cases continued to decrease, however, Swarthmore’s Commencement Committee pivoted to hosting two commencement ceremonies — an in-person one on May 30 and a virtual one on June 6. The Commencement Committee includes Vice President of Student Affairs Jim Terhune, other members of the President’s senior staff, Dean Nathan Miller, Dean Michelle Ray, the Senior Class Officers, and other staff managing the event.
According to the Senior Class Officers, the reasoning for this year’s virtual commencement in addition to an in-person ceremony is not only to protect the health and safety of the community but also to include seniors, families, and friends who cannot attend the in-person commencement.
“A virtual commencement is necessary, since all members of the graduating class should be able to equitably attend the formal commencement ceremony. We want to formally graduate as an entire class, and thus having a virtual commencement to make that possible is really important. However, we also understand that being able to gather in person to close this important chapter is valuable, thus we wanted to make that happen as well,” wrote the Class Officers.
Prior to the latest update on an in-person ceremony, the Commencement Committee was developing a range of possible in-person activities to have different options depending on the state of the pandemic.
“We are looking at two big buckets of possible outcomes. … We don’t have any of the specifics in place here, but one version could be something that is very close to what an in-person commencement traditionally would look like for students. Another version could be if the virus does not [abate], we could have to [hold in-person commencement events] in smaller groups,” said Terhune.
Currently, the committee is trying to address the logistics of possible in-person activities for graduates. While nothing is certain yet, the committee is trying to be as sensitive to the changing conditions of the virus as possible.
“How might we do it? [Would we] do in-person gatherings spread out over a longer period of time? How might this play out? I think our hope would be that we would be able to do something as close to a traditional commencement as possible but we want to be as agile and responsive to what the actual circumstances are,” continued Terhune.
The Senior Class Officers have been in touch with Vice President of Communications Andy Hirsch along with multiple administrative divisions like the President’s Office, the Office of Communications, and the Office of Student Engagement to plan the details. On April 2, Senior Class Officer Thomas Blakelock emailed an update to the senior class on a developing in-person commencement in addition to a later virtual ceremony.
“We are working with a number of offices on campus to find creative ways to honor our class during our virtual commencement ceremony on Sunday, June 6th. We’re also excited to share that an in-person commencement celebration is in the making for Sunday, May 30th, for [seniors] currently on campus and for seniors who are able to join us from off-campus,” reads Blakelock’s email.
So far, the itinerary for the in-person ceremony has not been finalized but there will be differences between this year’s virtual and in-person celebrations.
“Our hope is to include as much of the traditional in-person celebration as possible within standard COVID-19 restrictions. At this stage in planning, we do not have a finalized itinerary for virtual commencement and in-person commencement celebration, but we anticipate having a virtual commencement that generally resembles last May’s event for the Class of 2020,” wrote the Class Officers.
On April 8, President Smith released an email to the senior class with more details on the in-person commencement event.
“We are very pleased to share that graduates will be allowed to invite up to two guests to campus for the May 30 event,” reads President Smith’s email.
Smith’s email also shares details on event timeline, housing, and location. According to the email, the in-person celebration will take place on the morning of senior move-out and Swarthmore will not offer overnight housing for guests who attend the May 30 celebration. Additionally, the ceremony will take place somewhere outdoors, and campus facilities will be closed to all guests.
This decision follows Bryn Mawr and Haverford’s decisions to host an in-person commencement ceremony for their graduating classes.
Bryn Mawr College announced its plans for a socially-distanced in-person commencement on their website. Similar to Swarthmore’s COVID-19 era celebration, Bryn Mawr is allowing each graduating senior to bring two in-person guests who have purchased tickets in advance.
“We are pleased to announce that, health conditions permitting, we plan to hold 2021 Commencement ceremonies in person. To accommodate our degree candidates in a safe, physically-distanced layout, we have split our traditional Saturday ceremony into two for May 2021… each degree candidate will be able to host two in-person guests. In a departure from prior years, tickets will be required for guests to attend,” reads the web page.
Haverford’s in-person commencement shares some logistical features with Bryn Mawr and Swarthmore’s commencements. Haverford’s website says that in-person commencement will be held outside regardless of weather conditions, and two guests are allowed to accompany each graduate. Haverford will be livestreaming their in-person celebration for those that would have attended if not for COVID-19.
Uniquely, Swarthmore maintains its position on hosting two separate commencement ceremonies to include seniors, families, and friends who will not be able to attend the in-person ceremony. Additionally, Hirsch stated that the ceremony will be livestreamed on channels like YouTube and Facebook, similar to how 2020’s commencement aired.
“Regarding the online ceremony, which we’ll hold regardless of what, if any, in-person experience we’re able to offer, I expect that will include remarks from President Smith, the reading of all of the names of the graduates, perhaps a student performance and student speakers, along with other elements that we hope will make it a special occasion,” writes Hirsch.
Details on both commencements are still being finalized and further updates will be shared on April 9 as the Committee are searching for student speakers and performers to be featured in both commencements. According to Hirsch, all decisions will be made prioritizing the community’s health and safety.
“No matter what version of in-person we have, there will also be a virtual ceremony that will be available online for all students and their families and friends who will not be able to be there in person,” said Terhune.
Previously during J-term, administrators were discussing how to hold this year’s commencement and soliciting feedback from Senior Class Officers. Along with President Valerie Smith’s senior staff members, Terhune played an integral role in these discussions and the administration’s previous choice to host commencement virtually. The original decision for a virtual commencement was publicized during a COVID-19 town hall meeting on January 19.
According to Terhune, the primary consideration for virtual commencement was the health and safety of the community. Protecting the community’s health and safety involves maintaining social distancing so a traditional commencement is not possible this year.
“Normally, when we do in-person commencement on campus, you have a few thousand people coming from all over the world, so significant planning has to go into [in-person commencement] and based on all of the information from the infectious disease experts … there was really no version of events where … it would be possible to do the in-person commencement in the way it traditionally happens,” said Terhune.
Originally, Terhune and members of the administration were planning on a fully remote celebration and released information about the perceived likelihood of a virtual commencement earlier this year.
Matt Anderson ’21 said that he and his classmates received an email notifying them of that choice.
“I found out in the email like everyone else, and then right after, there were a lot of people on the [Swarthmore College 2020-2021] Facebook group talking about it, saying things like ‘go check your email for some bad news,’” he said.
Anderson was unsurprised at the college’s initial choice and thought that an all virtual commencement would’ve been a wise decision.
“I was definitely disappointed because commencement is exciting, and we’ve been working towards it for the last four years. A lot of me felt like [in-person commencement] wasn’t going to happen anyway,” Anderson said.
Although this will be the second time Swarthmore College hosts a virtual commencement, the circumstances on campus vary from May 2020. Last year, only students granted emergency housing were allowed on campus. This year’s online commencement is being hosted after two semesters during which only some of the student body lived on-campus.
Kat Capossela ’21, Sarah Wheaton ’21, and Anderson are excited to have an in-person end to their four years at Swarthmore and were happily surprised by the emails from Smith and Blakelock.
“I am very grateful that we are having an in-person commencement. I had no expectations for the end of the year because Swarthmore has acted conservatively in terms of the pandemic precautions, although their efforts have been largely successful. I tried not to bring my hopes up, and I was happily surprised,” said Capossela.
For Wheaton, news of an in-person commencement feels like a big milestone on the return to normal life.
“After everything our class has been through in the last year, from having to suddenly leave our campus home, friends, and academic life as we knew it to long periods of social isolation to having to find jobs and stay afloat academically as the world literally crumbled around us, the ceremony feels like it will be a really nice celebration of our making it through,” wrote Wheaton.
Now that Swarthmore has an in-person commencement in addition to a virtual one, Anderson expressed how strange it feels but says that he plans on attending at least some of the virtual programming.
“It’s definitely weird having two now. On the one hand, it is really nice they’re still doing a virtual ceremony since attendance to in-person commencement is super limited and some seniors aren’t on or near campus. On the other hand, I think the virtual ceremony will feel a little redundant for me since I will have had the in-person commencement a week before,” said Anderson.
Somewhat contrary to Anderson, Wheaton likes the idea of having two commencements.
“Although I’m excited to celebrate with my friends on campus, I think it’s very important that those who cannot be with us in person don’t feel left out of what should be their day, too. I will likely watch the online ceremony at home with my family. My brother is actually a Haverford ’20 grad, so it’s becoming a bit of a family tradition to watch online graduation ceremonies from home. We joked last year that my brother was eating a PB&J during the ceremony, so maybe I’ll continue that tradition,” wrote Wheaton.
While news of an in-person commencement brought joy to many seniors including Capossela, Anderson, and Wheaton, Capossela and Wheaton expressed some reservations about attendees’ vaccination statuses.
“I noticed that in President Smith’s email, she did not mention anything about requiring attendees to be vaccinated, although I think it would be really hard for the college to go through some vetting process like that,” said Capossela.
“While I think most people will be vaccinated, it’s obviously somewhat of a risk to have that many people traveling. I trust the college to make sure everyone is safe, but I also hope they still find a way to make the ceremony feel ‘normal’ and special,” wrote Wheaton.
Anderson added that he is apprehensive about the timing of the in-person celebration and how to navigate the limit on guests.
“I’m not super excited about having to move out the same day as the ceremony, it’d be nice to be able to have a little more time to enjoy that moment with friends. It also really seems like the college is trying to push everyone off campus right away so that if anyone gets COVID from the commencement, it isn’t the college’s problem anymore,” said Anderson.
Even though there is no screening process for vaccination status and the timing is less than ideal, Capossela, Anderson, and Wheaton still plan on attending the in-person ceremony. All seniors have been allocated two guest tickets which they are normally allowed to exchange, though Class Officers have been cautioning seniors against finalizing such trades because it is currently unclear whether or not the college will allow trades. Capossela will be attending with at least her parents and Wheaton will be attending with her parents. Anderson is still thinking about who his guests will be.
“I’m really looking forward to being in the same space as all my classmates. I haven’t seen them in over a year and ending a tremendous four years all together will be a really powerful and meaningful way to seal off our college experience,” said Capossela.
Image courtesy of Laurence Kesterson.