Illustration by Andrea Nebhut
The 16 members of the university’s annual Commencement and Convocation Committee never expected that they would be planning around an international pandemic. But following the closure of residence halls, the group was suddenly faced with a decision: to go through with the original in-person graduation ceremony on May 16 or to postpone?
Since September, the committee had been meeting monthly to make sure preparations for commencement were on track. They made decisions like how many tickets each senior gets for family and friends and to split this year’s ceremony into two. Now, with the risk of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of whether public gatherings of a graduation ceremony’s magnitude would be allowed by May 16, they were making decisions based on public health and safety.
“As soon as that decision [Trinity going remote] was made, we knew that there would be 1,000 consequences and follow on decisions that needed to be dealt with. So pretty quickly after that, within just a few days, I would say the leadership of the Commencement and Convocation Committee were beginning to talk to one another. And we were, you know, we didn’t have any decisions, but we were trying to plot a path forward,” said Duane Coltharp, associate vice president of Academic Affairs and one of the co-chairs of the Committee.
Ultimately, the committee elected to postpone the ceremony to August 8 and hold a virtual ceremony on May 16.
“We sat and talked over these dates and tried to find the best way to accommodate everyone,” said Abigail Jones, one of three senior students on the committee. “And of course you can’t accommodate everyone. But at Trinity we always try to accommodate the masses. And we definitely felt that August was the best. Again, [this date is] depending on the situation of our nation.”
To come to these decisions, the committee met four times since the March 11 announcement of Trinity emptying its residence halls. This was due to an awareness that they needed to set forth a plan for graduation as soon as possible. The committee knew even before announcing the postponement on April 6 that an in-person graduation was not going to happen.
“It became clear to us by the end of, I would say, by the end of March, beginning of April, that a physical ceremony in May just was not in the cards,” Coltharp said. “Just looking at the curve of cases locally and nationally, we could see that that just wasn’t gonna work out, but we wanted to get all of the decisions made as one package.”
The committee is an amalgamation of various people from university administrators to faculty members to students. It’s led by three co-chairs — Coltharp; Diane Persellin, professor of music education; and Bruce Bravo, senior director of Conferences and Auxiliary Services. Ten members of faculty and administration and three senior students join the co-chairs. The students advocate for the senior student body.
“They wanted to hear our student perspective instead of just making a decision based only on faculty and staff voices,” said senior Brian Guerrero, a student member of the committee.
And it was from this student perspective that the August 8 date was decided.
“The students on the committee emphasize that, from their perspective, any physical ceremony ought to happen as close to May as possible,” Coltharp said. “So August 8 is far enough out so there’s always some chance that things will be back to some kind of normal. And close so it kind of feels it feels as though it’s still special.”
There were other possibilities thrown out for the in-person graduation, such as holding a ceremony over Alumni Weekend in the fall or merging the Spring 2020 ceremony with the winter ceremony in December.
“I was pushing for Alumni Weekend, but once we realized the majority of students we talked to said that they preferred an August date over Alumni Weekend, [Abigail] and I both decided that August would be the best idea for the students,” Guerrero said.
“I polled about 30 seniors from athletics to humanities majors, music majors, STEM majors and across the board. August was the highest option people had. So once I felt like the student body preferred August, I took that and ran with it,” Jones said.
Currently, the details of the May 16 virtual ceremony are still in the works.
“Everything is still in the brainstorming stage,” Coltharp wrote in a follow-up email.
The committee is also accounting for the fact the current pandemic may not allow for the August 8 ceremony to happen. If this is the reality, the Committee has a plan for the May graduates in terms of when they can physically graduate.
“If the ongoing health situation makes it impossible to hold a physical ceremony in August, we will then invite the May degree recipients to participate in Winter Commencement in December,” Coltharp said.
The committee plans to continue meeting and assessing the graduation situation as more information about COVID-19 and its effects arise.