Students marking graduation in lockdown with virtual celebrity addresses and online degree shows

This summer, millions of students around the world are facing up to the reality of finishing university without a formal ceremony. For the Class of 2020, lockdown measures mean that the milestone moment is either cancelled, replaced by a virtual event, or rescheduled for 2022.

For many students, the change from several contact hours a week, to distance learning, to fizzling out and facing up to an uncertain jobs market, has been tough. But many are staying positive and getting creative, while turning to celebrity virtual addresses for a bit of inspiration.

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Meghan Markle spoke to her former LA high school via video message. And YouTube’s star-studded “Dear Class of 2020” virtual graduation event became the platform’s most watched livestream ever. It included more than four hours of inspiring talks from Michele and Barack Obama, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga.

Students might be graduating in unusual circumstances, but with a little creative planning, they are still marking the momentous occasion like any other cohort.

Graduating in the garden

Hattie Jones enjoyed a live-steamed ceremony on Facebook Live. She explains: “I received a link to Facebook on 9 May for an event that had speeches from the president of the university and a few others. They were all dressed up, in their professor cap and gown. Then there was a rolling list of names on the screen with music in the background and the whole thing lasted around two hours.”

Jones studied social care at Middle Tennessee State University in the USA after obtaining a football scholarship and she also received a custom graduation gift package sent to her home. “I was a student athlete so I got a medallion, a cap, and a stole – which is an athlete-specific gown – in a package along with my degree paper, which was really nice.”

Jones soon realised graduating in her garden would make for an unforgettable experience : “At first I was a bit miffed that I wouldn’t get to spend it with my team-mates and go to the bars in Nashville like we planned. I was sad I wouldn’t get to walk across the stage, but on the day my Mum made it special. She got me cake and decorated the house with balloons.

“My neighbour is a photographer and took my photos of me, and I also Facetimed my sister and grandparents with a glass of bubbly in the garden. It was amazing.”

Katie Pearce helped to create a virtual degree show for final-year graphic design and illustration students

A virtual degree show

Final year graphic design and illustration students at De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) created their own “virtual degree show” for peers, family and industry professionals to attend, with help from the faculty.

“Normally, final-years get to show their work in front of friends, family and industry professionals at a campus event,” explains Katie Pearce, one of the students who designed the site. “So we created a digital show instead. It’s a reflection of our community spirit and we’ve called it ‘Show Your Face’. It’s interactive and features the work of 100 students. I’m really happy that we’ve been given the chance to celebrate this way.”

Aaron Patel feels proud to graduate in the current circumstances

‘I still feel like a graduate’

Other students are managing to stay upbeat, even without a formal plan from their university.

Aaron Patel completed his three-year journalism course at London Metropolitan University. His institution cancelled summer graduations as soon as the country went into lockdown.

“Teaching became virtual around 13 March and the uni emailed instantly to say graduation was off,” Patel says. “I was massively looking forward to graduating as I’m the first one to attend uni in my family, but health comes before all that.”

Patel is unsure if he will get a formal ceremony at all, but he’s searching for jobs. “I still feel like a graduate, and I know the hard work will pay off. It’s a testament to me and my peers that we finished in these circumstances. It’s better to stay hopeful than feel hopeless.”

A proper party next year

Similarly, Clodagh Gilsenan says that her institution, the University of Liverpool, cancelled everything until further notice. “We’ve been invited to have an online celebration this summer which involves reflecting on our uni experience with pictures and videos. But it’s not a scheduled Zoom or live event,” she notes.

“Liverpool have said they want us to have the same graduation experience as everyone else so we’re waiting to hear if that will be on next summer.”

Gilsenan, who studied music, is happy to wait. “I do want the graduation pictures with family and friends. It would have been nice to end my final year on a high, but it can’t be helped. Pretty soon life will return to normal, but we can always say that year graduated during one of the toughest times in global history. That’s going to help us stand out.’’

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