How a distance learning institution is moving commencement online

Before COVID-19, Excelsior maintained an in-person ceremony to celebrate graduate achievements face to face—'the happiest of days at Excelsior'
James N. Baldwin is president of Excelsior College.
James N. Baldwin is president of Excelsior College, based in New York.

So many aspects of life have shifted as we navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Excelsior College had the advantage of being a remote learning institution before social distancing made it a necessity, we, too, were forced to change. The biggest change for us is moving from an in-person commencement ceremony to a virtual celebration.

Even though our students work in digital courses throughout their time at Excelsior, we’ve always held a traditional commencement. Typically, 10% of our graduates travel from their hometowns across the United States and even the globe to participate in the live event in Albany, New York, and still others stream the live ceremony at home.

We have maintained this in-person event because it has always been our special moment with graduates, our time to meet them face to face, to hear their stories of struggles and success, to see the expressions on their faces in person, to give handshakes and hugs, and to embrace the achievement together. I have always described it as the happiest of days at Excelsior.

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‘A celebration worthy of our graduates’

Like our colleagues at traditional institutions, we are feeling the loss of commencement. It is a day we look forward to all year, marked on calendars a year in advance and planned for many months. It is a treasured time for graduates, faculty and staff alike. We don our academic regalia, cheer our graduates, and host them and their families at a grand buffet.

We could not let this year’s commencement day pass without a celebration worthy of our graduates.

To stay true to commencement, we had to distill the event to its essence. What gives commencement the deepest meaning to the graduate?

So many of our students are first-generation college graduates, most in their 30s with jobs and families. How do we stage a virtual event to celebrate their accomplishments? How can we use technology—our platform every other day of the year—to create a memorable event?

To stay true to commencement, we had to distill the event to its essence. What gives commencement the deepest meaning to the graduate? For our students—more than 80% of them working adults—it is the achievement of a long-held goal; satisfaction and gratitude for their accomplishment; and hope for a better future for themselves, their loved ones and their communities.

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Monthlong festivities—and a final greeting

In an abbreviated format, we will deliver a meaningful commencement celebration for our nearly 6,000 graduates. Culminating with the virtual event, graduates will also receive a surprise package in the mail, enjoy opportunities for social engagement and have access to plenty of digital swag.

Leading up to the big day, each graduate will receive a surprise package, including a cap, tassel and alumni decal. Graduates are invited to join the monthlong festivities by posting photos and videos to social media. Postings across social media platforms will be curated on Excelsior’s Commencement webpage for all to enjoy. We’ll provide digital downloads for lawn signs, posters and social media graphics. We’ll also provide them with digital applause, cheers and congratulations.

On July 10 at 3 p.m., our commencement event begins just as originally planned. Graduates will hear my final greeting as president of the college as well as video messages from Helen Benjamin, our board chair; John Caron, provost; other graduates; and notable alumni. We will pack what is usually two hours of “pomp and circumstance” into a 30-minute video with conferral of degrees, celebration, excitement and heartfelt congratulations for our graduates.

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Challenges met

Hopefully by next year, the pandemic and the limitations it has imposed on us will be part of history. For us, COVID-19 prompted reflection about the meaning of commencement for all of our students, not just for those who could travel to attend.

At Excelsior, the challenge posed by social distancing met by the power of imagination, creativity and technology will make our commencement more inclusive and communal than ever. Instead of the usual 10% of graduates participating in our event, we’ll be able to reach the nearly 6,000 Excelsior graduates in the class of 2020.

James N. Baldwin is president of Excelsior College, a distance learning institution based in Albany, New York.

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James N. Baldwin
James N. Baldwin
James N. Baldwin is president of Excelsior College, a distance learning institution based in Albany, New York.

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