Eaton: Another year of virtual commencement — for some

If I had known four years ago that being in Carlson would mean walking at graduation, I might be graduating with a different degree.

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Emily Eaton

Hey, remember the class of 2020? Two months of online school and the prospects of virtual graduation sent nearly the entire country into a spiral of altruism and empathy. News organizations like Minneapolis’ Kare 11 had special shoutouts for graduating students. When the Minnesota Department of Health released guidelines for 2020 commencement ceremonies, they acknowledged “how much the class of 2020 has sacrificed.” Former President Barack Obama even gave a commencement speech honoring the (high school) class of 2020.

As a member of the class of 2021, my graduation will take place on my laptop screen. John Coleman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts, did not even issue this year’s seniors an apology when he announced our commencement ceremony would occur virtually. I was upset — but I understood. We are living through a global pandemic, and not having graduation is just another sacrifice to add to the long list we have been cultivating over the last year.

Then, I learned that the Carlson School of Management would have an in-person ceremony (with guests!). The College of Design is going hybrid, with a virtual ceremony and an in-person chance to hear your name read and walk across the stage. The same goes for the College of Biological Sciences. The College of Science and Engineering is having in-person events for each department. The College of Education and Human Development will be virtual, but there is an opportunity for an in-person diploma cover pick-up and photos. The College of Food, Agriculture, and Natural Resource Sciences will have separate virtual ceremonies for graduate and undergraduate students. The College of Continuing Studies is hosting an in-person ceremony without guests.

Sounds equitable.

Last year, when virtual graduation occurred for all students across University of Minnesota colleges, Minnesota experienced roughly between 400 and 600 new cases a day. In April of 2021, as some students look forward to in-person ceremonies and celebrations, Minnesota is experiencing between 1 to 2,000 new cases each day. According to the New York Times, the University of Minnesota was connected with the state’s largest COVID-19 outbreak cluster. Not to mention, we now have two new variants to deal with — one of which, the B.1.351 or the South African variant, renders antibodies and vaccines significantly less effective at preventing illness.

So, we have more cases on our hands. We also have two variants to deal with, one that could not care less about whether or not you have been vaccinated. And, we are on a college campus. I can tell you for certain that there are quite a few students for whom social distancing is what happens when they see their ex at one of the campus bars, not a COVID-19 precaution.

I’ll be straight with you: as a liberal arts student, I am bitter. Not only did I pay full tuition for a year of online school, I get to top it off by staring at my computer some more. My blue light glasses do not really go with traditional commencement regalia. Walking across the stage to accept my diploma in front of my peers seems like a right of passage into adulthood, a crucial piece of the transition to life beyond college. With CSE and Carlson being the two more popular undergraduate colleges with in-person events, I cannot help but feel as though we are playing into the rhetoric that liberal arts are less important. Carlson kids can bring guests to their graduation, but CLA students do not even get to pick up their diploma cover in person. Some liberal arts majors may choose to put on in-person events, but it is not universal across the college. Coupled with the University’s decision to temporarily end admission to certain Ph.D. programs in the liberal arts to save money, CLA’s decision seems a lot less like a COVID-conscious choice and more like an opportunity to cheat graduating students and save a bit of cash. Ironically enough, the University of Minnesota has more alumni who have made a name for themselves in law and politics (i.e., the humanities) than those who have risen to prominence in science and medicine. What you chose to major in should not dictate whether or not you are honored for your accomplishments.

If some form of in-person commencement happens for some students, it should be an opportunity for all. The College of Biological Science and College of Design show that it is not all or nothing; colleges can give students the opportunity to hear their name and walk across a stage without incurring major health risks or going to an entirely virtual platform. Zoom fatigue may have many of us in a fog, but it is still clear that the current state of graduation on our campus simply does not make sense. The very least the administration can do is issue a legitimate apology to students who are not given the opportunity to partake in any in-person component of graduation.