College is, for many students, a four-year journey. College is also a lot of freedom and responsibility, and a lot of classes and tuition payments. For some students, it’s even longer. Not every student will make it to the end. For those who do, however, it all culminates in a commencement ceremony. No matter how hard the years are, students could look forward to walking across the graduation stage like crossing over a finish line.
However, for the graduating class of spring 2020, crossing the finish line means staring at their computer screens as commencement goes virtual. For Portland State, it’s the only acceptable option—for many students, it’s no option at all.
PSU announced on March 26 commencement, for all schools and colleges, and for all graduates and undergraduates, will be held remotely—the latest in the school’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The decision was first released in an email to graduating students, and later to the PSU community at large, urging the community to support the class of 2020.
“These are very difficult decisions we have to make,” stated PSU Interim President Stephen Percy in his announcement. “But we are making them now in recognition of the seriousness and uncertainty of the global public health challenge in front of us.”
The decision was made to help stem the spread of COVID-19, a highly infectious disease with an exponential increase in confirmed cases daily. The disease spreads primarily from person to person, according to the Center for Disease Control, which recommends people stay at least six feet away from each other. The CDC also currently recommends canceling gatherings of over 250 people if there is a minimal or moderate spread of the disease in an area.
Meanwhile, attendance numbers for PSU’s commencement ceremonies often reach thousands of graduates, with even more attendees per each student. Squishing them into one space is difficult, even without accounting for six feet of space between each person.
In its response, PSU insisted even with no physical ceremony, commencement was by no means canceled and had no chance of being postponed. Instead, the school plans to host various, virtual ceremonies online on their website on June 14. It will include videos from various speakers and personalized slides for each student graduating—exactly what it will look like, however, is still unclear. PSU released a survey asking for student ideas.
However, for many students, virtual commencement cannot compare to a ceremony in person. The initial student response to the decision has largely been negative.
“After learning that PSU had decided to hold a virtual commencement ceremony for the class of 2020, I was so upset,” Emily Pappas, a PSU student, stated.
In addition, a large number of students took to social media to express their dismay over the decision. PSU’s original Facebook post announcement currently has over 200 comments, with more comments regarding commencement on posts about tuition and other subjects.
“We understand how hard you’ve worked towards graduation and how important it is for PSU to recognize your accomplishments. We know it is disappointing not to have a traditional in-person commencement,” PSU stated on its website. “Moving to a virtual ceremony was not an easy decision, but one we were forced to make because the threat of the coronavirus is prohibiting large gatherings in Oregon until further notice.”
While many students are expressing their sadness over the announcement, they’re also wondering—why not postpone the proceedings until after the pandemic, and give the students the chance to walk in person?
Multiple petitions exist online asking for this very thing, having garnered hundreds of signatures between them. The petitions suggest a few solutions, from postponing the ceremony to the fall term, or even waiting to allow the class of 2020 to walk with the class of 2021. At the very least, the petitions demand a decision be made that takes student input into consideration.
“It’s clear that students were not involved in the decision, and despite the overwhelming feedback from students, the school continues copying and pasting the same sentiment, failing to respond to the individual feedback they’ve received,” PSU student Natalie Smith stated. “The Class of 2020 has made it clear that we do not want a virtual ceremony, that we’d be content with even waiting a year and walking with the Class of 2021.”
For other students, they hope that not only will they be able to walk down the aisle for the diploma, but that the people who helped them get there can also see them through.
“My journey to earning a Bachelor’s degree took more than studying but the support from my friends and family as well,” Omar Ramirez, a PSU student, stated. “I am the son of immigrants who sacrificed and left everything behind. I am the son of parents who one day dreamed of hearing their son’s name be announced to receive a degree. They contributed as much as I did to earn my degree.”
“The hard work, stress, and sacrifices are not worth an online commencement. The journey should not end this way.”
PSU’s student government, the Associated Students of PSU, also announced, in an email to students, its support for postponing the ceremony.
“We understand the position the University is in to abide by health officials’ decision to limit large gatherings, but similarly understand how important graduation is to students here, especially those who are first-generation college students,” ASPSU President Kyle Leslie-Christy stated. “The whole process of graduation is a monumental moment that people will remember for the rest of their lives. We at ASPSU support postponing this year’s graduation to a later date in which an in-person ceremony can be held safely.”
Shortly after the original announcement was made, however, PSU commented once again on its own, original post, with little change.
“We are not able to postpone commencement mainly because it is not possible to know how long coronavirus restrictions will last, which puts any future bookings of large venues in doubt,” PSU stated. “In contrast, planning to host virtual ceremonies on the previously scheduled day of June 14 will enable us to recreate the pomp and circumstance of commencement and ensures that we will be able to celebrate all of our 2020 graduates.”
Regardless of whether or not commencement is held in person or online, the amount of work students have put in cannot be denied. COVID-19 has affected nearly every aspect of life suddenly, as the number of cases rises and states struggle to flatten the curve, and unfortunately, college is no exception.
However, a sudden change of events can’t change the long number of hours, days and years that head to a student’s graduation. For every student, it is an amazing achievement—worthy of the appropriate acknowledgment.