Taylor Walker worked hard during her time at Salem State University. She was her class’s homecoming queen, she sang in the university’s Grammy award-winning choir, and she completed a double degree in communication and speech. Graduation was her chance to reflect on all those accomplishments. To celebrate, she planned to host a party with her family, who she hasn’t seen much because she’s been so busy.
“I wanted to have this time to celebrate not just me, but my family,” she says. “This whole college journey for me has been really a team effort for who I call ‘my village,’ my family unit.”
Then the pandemic happened. On March 16th, her school postponed her graduation ceremony indefinitely, and on April 29th, she received her cap and gown in the mail. She started crying when she opened the box.
Schools around the world have postponed their graduation ceremonies, moved them online, or canceled them outright. The schools are trying their best, but the seniors still say they’re disappointed. They’re using Twitter and TikTok to share their sadness and to make up for the lost rite of passage with jokes. Digital ceremonies aren’t a replacement, they say, and these events don’t replicate the true feeling of graduation. Plus, they can’t say goodbye to their friends or teachers — let alone throw a graduation party.
The digital events tend to lack the prestige and passion of a real ceremony. The streams are often choppy, involve prerecorded remarks, and sometimes show graduates’ photos on-screen alongside their name. People type “congratulations” in the live chat. Other schools are encouraging students to participate in graduation TikTok challenges or at least record themselves moving their tassels from the right to the left and posting it to social media.
“Regarding the fact that my graduation, my last day in high school, basically, will be spent by staring at my computer, I find it quite heartbreaking, really,” Stella Kusumawardhani, a high school student in Indonesia, writes in a Twitter DM to me. “There are so many teachers that I would like to thank and talk to. I still want to meet my friends … so yeah, this lack of proper farewell makes me pretty sad.”
Kusumawardhani says her school’s graduation normally involves prayers because she attends a Christian school, speeches, and performances from the band, dance group, and choir. This year, the school held a prerecorded YouTube stream that only involved the speeches and prayers, cutting all the “fun stuff.” She said the school also sent out a medal to each student and asked them to have their parents place it on them and take a photo, which the school compiled into a video that they posted on social media.
Kusumawardhani says she felt “sad” afterward and video chatted her friends who also graduated. She says they also felt “empty and sad.”
That seems to be a uniting factor among seniors. Their schools are making alternative graduation plans, but the grads don’t think they’ll feel satisfied with the end result. Remy Leonard, a social work student at Loyola University of Chicago, says the school postponed her ceremony until August “based on favorable COVID-19 conditions” and is offering regalia refunds for anyone who can’t attend. Leonard is part of a five-year master’s program, so although she can’t celebrate with her undergrad class, she has another chance to do so next year.
Still, she’s graduating a full year early and wanted to celebrate that success alongside her brother who’s finishing high school this year, too. His ceremony was canceled completely, and neither he nor his sister can visit or celebrate with their dad because he’s asthmatic.
“I’m graduating a full year early, I really worked hard for that, and not being able to celebrate at all, being trapped in my apartment without any friends or family, or even professors to talk to, is really depressing,” Leonard says. “It feels like it’s not real, and it’s not even processing.”
Leonard says she and her close friends have made their own virtual plans and stocked up on graduation items, like a stage and gowns, in the Nintendo Switch game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. They’re going to host their own ceremony and party in the game.
“But it’s still not the same,” Leonard says. She still can’t see her friend in-person or walk across the stage with them.
Although Nintendo didn’t intend for Animal Crossing to stand in for in-person ceremonies, other tech companies are using canceled graduations to promote their platforms. Facebook will have Oprah Winfrey speak at its online ceremony, along with a Miley Cyrus performance. It’s also trying to facilitate graduation parties over its new videoconferencing software, Messenger Rooms.
Meanwhile, YouTube is hosting its own live-streaming event with former US President Barack Obama as the commencement speaker, and multiple TV networks are hosting their own simulcast online and over-the-air programs with Obama and other guests. The tech companies see the move to virtual commencements as an opportunity to tie themselves to an important life event and throw their weight around to attract celebrity talent.
While some seniors say this is a nice gesture, they know it’s not the same as a real ceremony, and many will never experience a traditional graduation ceremony.
All the graduating classes of 2020 now have something in common. Although seniors are disappointed, they recognize they’re going through it with millions of other students.
“I’ve seen a lot of people hosting virtual graduations, businesses hosting or creating certain things for classes and schools, and that alone keeps me encouraged,” Walker says. “To know that while we don’t do a form of celebration, the world, or our country, is celebrating with us and that that feels good.”