PSU Graduates at the 2019 commencement in the Moda Center. Courtesy of PSU.

The graduation must go on


After a term full of uncertainty—what will, for many students, be their last—Portland State will officially hold an in person commencement ceremony. At least, as soon as they can. 


In a joint communication, the Associated Students of PSU (ASPSU) and the University Commencement planning team, after meeting with each other and other students, announced that the university was “100% committed” to having an in-person commencement ceremony, once the conditions and restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic would allow them to. 


“An in-person event will be scheduled and shared with students as soon as Oregon public health guidance allows for it,” stated ASPSU President Kyle Leslie-Christy and PSU Vice President for Enrollment Management Chuck Knepfle in a joint announcement. “We know that this may not bring much reassurance for those graduating this spring, but we want you to know that we are working hard to make this process more transparent, more equitable, and filled with more student voices.”


In addition, PSU will continue to hold multiple virtual commencement ceremonies on its website on June 14, and assured students participating in the virtual ceremony would also be able to join the one in-person, once it happened. For students who want professional photos, PSU also assured that photographers would be at the event. 


Nothing is finalized for the in-person ceremony, other than that it will, indeed, happen. 


“There’s for sure gonna be an in-person graduation,” Leslie-Christy said. “I think it’s important to know that there will be an in-person graduation, [that an] in-person event will be scheduled and shared as soon as the Oregon Health Authority Guidance allows for it.”


PSU originally announced commencement would be held virtually on March 26, to the immediate dismay of many students. While the response was largely negative, PSU released a follow up statement, reaffirming that commencement would not be postponed to a different date.


“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,” the announcement stated, as a comment to the original release on PSU’s Facebook page. “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. We share in that disappointment.”


In response, the Equal Rights Advocacy committee, directed by Ernesto Dominguez, and the Academic Affairs committee, directed by Madeline Frisk, co-sponsored a resolution to “hold PSU administrators at fault for not reaching out to a diverse group of students for guidance in this matter initially.” They asked that PSU reconsider their decision to only hold a virtual commencement ceremony. The resolution passed in the ASPSU Senate on April 13, with a 14-1 vote. 


Without warning or discussion or outreach by the administration, students, including myself, got an email that commencement would be virtual this year,” Frisk said. “That, to me, was a misstep and disrespectful to the student body. I understand it was a decision that needed to be made for health and safety reasons, but I feel that a discussion should have been had beforehand and that there should have been more than an email with very little details or a sense of it being a student-centered decision.”


ASPSU also released a survey to the student body to gather data on various issues since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic—including commencement. Later, the planning team invited ASPSU, along with other students, to meetings discussing future and possible plans for commencement. The group was kept relatively small, however, according to Frisk.


“I also had asked if more student groups and resource centers could have been reached out to, but the administration wanted to keep the group small so only seven students were at the meetings which were held,” she said. “I’m hopeful there can be more students in the planning discussions representing more academic departments, resource centers and student groups in the future so that more perspectives can be heard.“


For Dominguez, the meetings were a chance to increase transparency between students and university administration, and gave ASPSU an opportunity to keep students informed. 


“I think a lot of things that ASPSU had been trying to do, to kind of connect student voice to the university—it started to feel actually like it was doing something when we heard that the university was was going to do an in person event, and was going to find a way to have photographers available for students,” Dominguez said. “So that was the first time that I felt like, oh, they’re actually listening.”


There is still a lot that is tentative, regarding in-person commencement—but students are no longer left to wonder whether it will happen at all. 


I think they didn’t want to promise anything with all of the uncertainties given health and safety concerns related to COVID-19, but I think commencement is something that, especially for those who are historically marginalized and underrepresented in higher education, is bigger than just a silly celebration,” Frisk said. “It’s a show of their hard work, dedication, and it’s a chance to be with friends, family, fellow classmates and loved ones. It’s more than just the gown, the cap and the fanfare, it’s about achieving a degree which provides opportunities.”