Commencement Cannot be Replicated on Zoom

Working commencement was one of my favorite parts of the job during the ten years I was director of public relations for The City College of New York. It bookended my career there. I began work in May 2004, two weeks before commencement. President Bill Clinton was the commencement speaker, and I had to scramble to make sure the local media knew and covered the event. A decade later, I worked my last commencement one month before taking early retirement.

It seemed everyone on campus was consumed by the event. Planning began early in the year. We had numerous meetings that dealt with logistical issues such as seating arrangements, how many tickets graduates would be allowed, and, of course, parking.

In May, the Office of Communications and Marketing was focused on writing speeches and talking points for the president, issuing news releases about commencement and student awards, putting the finishing touches on our “Great Grads” annual salute to members of the graduating class, and making sure every graduate’s name was spelling correctly in the commencement program.

The overriding goal was to make sure the event came off without a hitch. My main responsibility on the day of commencement was to make sure members of the platform party got quickly suited up in cap and gown and had their pictures taken with the president before the procession began. After that, I grabbed my camera and went out to take candid photos attendees: graduates, faculty, alumni, and parents. That was the fun part.

The moment the president instructs you to move the tassel from the right side of your mortarboard to the left and declares you a graduate truly is magical and something to shout about.

I am greatly saddened that because of COVID-19 there will be no commencement at City College or almost every other college in the United States this year. The members of the Class of 2020 have, through no fault of their own, been robbed of this special moment in their lives.

What makes it special? All that work and tears over the previous four years or more have come together to represent something remarkable. The moment the president instructs you to move the tassel from the right side of your mortarboard to the left and declares you a graduate truly is magical and something to shout about.

The students I met and worked with at City College – and the other CUNY colleges – are different from those fortunate enough to attend residential colleges. They are not the children of privilege. Many must juggle their academic careers with work and family responsibilities, all while struggling to make ends meet. They usually came from working class and immigrant families and had a limited support system to fall back upon.

Their peers– classmates, teammates, lab partners and studio members – became their support network. Even though everyone was responsible for their own success, nobody did it alone. Professors, advisors, librarians, and tutors helped them along, as well.

Commencement marks not only individual achievements but a shared success; a moment to be celebrated by all who made it happen. It cannot be replicated. There is no hugging on Zoom. No chance to introduce your parents to the professors who helped to transform your life or the classmates who helped you make it through. No opportunity to get your picture taken with the president or to see your future in the faces of the alumni who returned to mark their 50th, 60th or 70th class reunions.

I hope next year the Class of 2021 will be able to enjoy a proper commencement. At some point in the not too distant future City College and other institutions throughout the country will hopefully be able to give members of the Class of 2020 the send-off they rightfully deserve.

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