Colleges and universities got creative last spring and summer when faced with the possibility that commencement ceremonies could be canceled because of COVID-19.
Some decided to take a leap of faith on bandwidth and shifted entire events online, while some opted to be even bolder and host them in person, livestreamed with limited guests on an expansive football fields with each student socially distanced.
One of the most unique pivots was pulled off by a number of high schools and community colleges. And it is something that will be embraced this May by at leasat four institutions, including Widener University in Chester, Pa.: The drive-thru commencement ceremony.
Widener is not only hosting drive-thru events down one of its main campus thoroughfares on back-to-back days but it is also holding four consecutive days of in-person ceremonies for those wishing to have that option.
The decision to have two separate, very different celebrations came after the university polled its students to get their input and received more than 1,200 responses.
“In order to meet the individual needs of graduates and their guests, we are excited to offer two commencement options for the first time in university history, to honor graduates and recognize their achievements while maintaining safety as our top priority,” said Vice President for Strategic Initiatives and Chief of Staff Katie Herschede. “Graduates may choose the format that works best for them and for their families. Our commencement options reflect what students asked for, while fully respecting the significance and severity of the pandemic.”
How the ceremonies will work
On Tuesday, May 11th and Wednesday the 12th, prospective graduates will arrive in vehicles at scheduled times for the commencement ceremony. Students can have two vehicles with as many guests as they want in each vehicle. Once arriving at the stage area in front of the historic Old Main administration building (above) on 14th Street, students will get out of their vehicles and walk across a platform and have their name called as they are presented symbolically with their degrees. Each student will have approximately two minutes in the staging area, according to the university, before going back to their car.
Remarkably, the university says the time on campus for each set of vehicles, from check in to graduation, will be only 20 minutes, though it is asking students to book for an hour just in case. There will be no formal processional. Widener notes on its website, there is just one graduate at a time: “You!”
Meanwhile, on Wednesday through Saturday, Widener will hold separate 45-minute, in-person ceremonies of 100 or fewer graduates under a tent at Memorial Field, a large open recreation area on campus. Unlike the drive-thru event, the graduates on those days will walk in a processional lineup and have their names announced. There will be speeches but only short opening and closing remarks from school officials.
Widener says both 2020 and 2021 grads will be honored during the events and professional photos will be taken throughout the ceremonies. However, its drive-thru ceremony is not being livestreamed. The university has strict safety measures in place for both ceremonies that include sanitizing between events, touchless ticketing (and yes, all guests in vehicles must be ticketed), social distancing and mask wearing.
Widener plans to have some content available from the ceremonies on its website, saying “graduates will be able to stay connected digitally as they celebrate on their own.”
Other drive-thru examples
There are a bunch of colleges and universities, like Widener, that have made the switch to drive-thru commencement ceremonies, all with different setups.
The University of Hawaii-Hilo is hosting a stay-in-your-vehicle drive-thru event on May 15 that will be livestreamed. Grads are being told to check in that day, when they will be given a starting time. Guests and families can accompany students in the same vehicles. All persons must remain buckled in during the event, and students are encouraged to sit in the passenger seat where they will be handed their diploma cover and program. The university is not allowing guests in the back of pickup trucks and not allowing anything to be thrown from vehicles.
That is in stark contrast to an event held last August when Utah Valley University hosted a very open drive-thru convocation and drive-in theater style ceremony for more than 6,000 graduates. It featured many convertibles and pickup trucks filled with guests, and vehicles adorned with messages and large balloons and banners. Families and students then filled a massive parking lot – think large tailgate party – with a stage setup that featured speakers and music and a late-night fireworks display. It was so successful that UVU plans to do it again on May 7, and will have students walking across a stage to receive their diploma covers.
Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. – because we are still operating in a pandemic world – is holding a “hybrid commencement” ceremony this spring. It will be honoring grads with a drive-thru and virtual event because of the public health guidelines in the state that prohibit large in-person gatherings. Like Widener, graduates will be able to exit their vehicles, walk across a stage wearing their regalia and get their diploma and program. But like Hawaii-Hilo, Sonoma is limiting total guests to one vehicle. It has not fully released details of its virtual format yet.
Perhaps the coolest ceremony took place last December for Texas Woman’s University, which held its drive-thru ceremony at Texas Motor Speedway, the annual site of several NASCAR, Trucks and IndyCar series events. Each student got to take a slow lap, along with family and guests in a separate car, around the Speedway before stopping at the finish line for pictures (in full regalia) with their diploma covers. Many high schools have booked the Speedway for commencement events in 2021.
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