Commencement at Rowan: 20 unique ceremonies, 1 big virtual event

The New Jersey university is planning a bigger, better live schedule this year, focused on individual colleges and a main event that includes Olympic gold medalist Dara Torres.

Last year, Rowan University in Glassboro, N.J., pulled off one of the more stunning feats by a college or university during the early months of the pandemic, hosting 13 small commencement ceremonies for graduates in each of its colleges.

So as this year’s plans were being discussed – and with uncertainty still swirling over gatherings – Rowan officials had no doubt they could pull it off again, while adding a few surprise twists.

On May 10-13, more than 3,300 students and their families will converge again on the University Green, this time with 20 separate ceremonies and myriad safety measures in place.

The individual commencements will follow a live virtual celebration on May 8, when President Ali Houshmand will address graduates, where degrees will be conferred and where a number of speakers, including 12-time Olympic swimming medalist Dara Torres (4x gold), will offer inspiring words to send them off to a promising future.

“Her story is tremendous,” said Dr. Joanne Conner, Chief of Staff and Liaison to the Board of Trustees at Rowan, noting Torres’ successful transition from swimming to the business world. “We thought it would be a perfect, positive, nonpolitical, non-COVID message.”

Commencement speaker Dara Torres

Rowan is one of many institutions across the nation attempting in-person ceremonies and allowing students to walk across stages and be recognized this spring. While some smaller institutions plan to host multi-ceremony events on their campuses, others will take a more bold approach – holding commencements at large stadiums, including Fenway Park in Boston.

For Conner’s team at Rowan, having that year of experience is a huge advantage. Twenty ceremonies will be a challenge but maybe not as daunting as the alternative.

“Commencement for 20,000 people is a logistical nightmare,” Conner jokes. “So, in comparison, it’s just a different set of logistics really.”

‘How can we do this?’

What does it take to pull off a dozen or more individual ceremonies during a pandemic?

Outdoor space, deft scheduling and organizing, patience, a willingness to sanitize, patience … and a very big tent.

In 2020, timing was one of the biggest challenges for Rowan. Gov. Phil Murphy announced the state would expand outdoors gatherings to 500 people … but not until July. That gave Rowan a small planning window to put together its ceremonies for approximately 1,800 graduates.

“Our emergency operations team kept challenging ourselves not to think about whether or not something was possible, but rather how,” Conner said. “These are the guidelines that we’ve been given. Nobody is saying you can’t do something. Most colleges were saying we can’t do it, or we can. We were trying to take a different approach by saying, ‘here are the parameters … how can we do this?’ ”

More from UB: Check out a video of last year’s event here

So, Conner sat down with her commencement team and challenged them to think more deeply about it.

“Just be as creative as you can,” she says. “Before we say whether anything is worth it or not, I want to know what it would look like. The tricky part was at a certain point, you have to cut it off, and you’ve just got to commit. The landscape was changing on a daily basis, and you don’t have the luxury of waiting too long.”

A key part of commencement was its main ceremony, which it brought back just a few years ago. With restrictions on large gatherings, the idea to transition it to a virtual component made sense.

“We wanted to maintain the integrity of that ceremony,” Conner said. “We didn’t want to lose that.”

Last year’s version admittedly “was not wonderful” because it was pre-recorded. But this year’s promises to be different because it will be live, with Monika Williams Shealy, senior vice president for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, emceeing the event.

Maintaining that walk across the stage

Behind the scenes and while pulling together the digital components necessary for the virtual event, the commencement team will be working on the second part of the show – each of the individual ceremonies under the big tent.

Chairs for graduates and for guests attending (Rowan is allowing four tickets to each students; last year it was two) will need to be spaced out and socially distanced. Between each of the five ceremonies on the four days, the facilities staff, along with Conner and her team will be charged with sanitizing all of them and putting down programs.

The university also will remove a section of the fence on its baseball field to accommodate the graduating students, who will be registered and processed. Parents will park in an adjacent garage and walk down a pathway toward the green.

“Everybody’s wearing masks, we’ve got hand sanitizer and there are reminders to socially distance,” Conner says.

Ceremonies themselves last about 20 minutes, as students process across the stage, pose briefly with or without masks, and then head back to their seats. They will proceed to the other side of the green for quick pictures and then families are funneled back to the parking garage where they can exit.

The university is allowing for one hour for each event, with an hour in between. Last year’s ceremonies went off smoothly, with graduates and guests applauding the job well done under difficult circumstances. Being able to conduct somewhat traditional-style ceremonies was a key creative element that proved it was possible.

“We really focused on the most important part: what the family member for each student wants,” Conner says. “What they really wanted was the picture of their loved one walking across the stage.”

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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