Celebrating on a screen: Iowa universities hold first-ever online commencements

Kinesiology and health and pre-physician assistant graduate Molly Norman (left) of Clinton is cheered Friday by kinesiol
Kinesiology and health and pre-physician assistant graduate Molly Norman (left) of Clinton is cheered Friday by kinesiology and pre-occupational therapy graduate Emma Gettes (center), also of Clinton, as the pair gather with family and friends to watch the online commencement ceremony near the Campanile at Iowa State University in Ames. All three of Iowa’s public universities, which closed their campuses after spring break, have moved commencement ceremonies online. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Iowa State University graduates who celebrated commencement Friday saw lots of caps and gowns, red-and-gold confetti and arenas packed with friends and family.

But none of those images were from this year — which now is defined by the novel coronavirus that has forced education online and put an end to large gatherings like graduation ceremonies.

Appearing in front of a red ISU screen Friday, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Dean Daniel J. Robison addressed graduates like he usually would at commencement — but this time in a recorded message acknowledging the unprecedented circumstances keeping them apart.

“This year, because of the COVID crisis, we are unfortunately not all together for this happy occasion,” he said, pushing forward in a motivational tone by quoting famed ISU alumnus George Washington Carver.

“When you can do the common things in life in an uncommon way, you will command the attention of the world,” Robison said, citing Carver.

About 12,000 graduates across Iowa’s public universities this month are doing exactly that — capping their collegiate careers with never-before-attempted online-only commencement ceremonies, with each campus and their respective colleges attempting a variety of virtual celebration methods.

ISU and the University of Iowa are attempting some form of socially-distanced livestreamed convocation with countdown clocks and virtual confetti. All three campuses including the University of Northern Iowa have posted online recorded messages, videos and slides acknowledging individual graduates.

Some slides include photos, thank-yous, quotes and student plans for after graduation.


UNI, which didn’t try any form of a live virtual ceremony, instead created a graduation website that went live Thursday. That site hosts an array of recorded video messages — including one from UNI President Mark Nook who, standing alone behind a podium on campus clad in traditional academic regalia, recognized his campus’ 1,500-some spring graduates and their unusual challenges.

“We know the loss you feel in not being able to be on campus to celebrate this time with your friends, faculty and staff,” Nook said. “To walk around campus in your robe and to take those pictures with friends and family members … The loss is felt by many of us as well.”

He reminded those listening that this spring’s UNI graduates — like those at the UI and ISU — can participate in an upcoming in-person commencement ceremony.

And although students were allowed to return caps and gowns they ordered for their canceled walks across the stage, some kept them as keepsakes. The campuses offered other tokens of remembrance as well, including “CYlebration” gift packages ISU sent to graduates in April stuffed with a souvenir tassel, diploma cover, and streamer tube — to make up for the confetti that won’t be falling on graduation caps from the Hilton Coliseum rafters.

In addition to the recorded messages from 17 UI leaders — including President Bruce Harreld — the campus solicited parent messages, which will be included in the live virtual ceremonies.

To date, about 3,100 of the more than 5,400 UI graduates have RSVP’d to participate in the ceremony, which spokeswoman Anne Bassett said is a required affirmation from the students to have their names read.

“Students do not have to sign up to watch,” she said. “So there’s no way at this time to predict how many will do so.”

Despite the historic nature of the first online-only commencement ceremonies — forever bonding distanced graduates through the shared experience — UI graduate Omar Khodor, 22, said it’s a club he would have liked to avoid.


“I’d definitely prefer not to be part of that group,” the environmental science major said, sharing disappointment over the education, experiences and celebrations he lost to the pandemic.

“A lot of students like myself, we’re upset, but we’re not really allowed to be upset given the circumstances,” Khodor said. “You have this sense that something is unfair, that something has been taken from you. But you can’t be mad about it at all.”

‘Should I Dance Across the Stage?’

Life is too short to dwell on what could have been or what should have been — which sort of captures graduate Dawn Hales’ motivation to get an ISU degree.

The 63-year-old Ames grandmother calls herself the “oldest BSN Iowa State grad ever.”

“It’s the truth, because we’re only the second cohort to graduate,” Hales said. “I’ll probably be the oldest for a while.”

ISU began offering a Bachelor of Science in nursing degree in fall 2018 for registered nurses hoping to advance their careers — like Hales, who spent years in nursing before becoming director of nursing at Accura Healthcare, a skilled nursing and rehabilitation center in Ames.

In addition to wanting more education, Hales said, she felt like the “odd man out” in her red-and-gold family — with her husband, three sons and their wives all earning ISU degrees. She earned an associate degree and became a registered nurse with community college training.

“I was director of nursing at different facilities, but I did not have a four-year degree,” she said. “I always wanted to get my BSN.”

So in January 2019, she started full-time toward her three-semester pursuit of a BSN — even as she continued working. And her education took a relevant and important turn when COVID-19 arrived.

“My capstone project was infection control,” she said, noting her focus later sharpened to “infection control and crisis management” — perfect timing to fight the coronavirus, which has hit long-term care facilities particularly hard.


“We were hyper vigilant,” Hales said of her facility, which has yet to report a case of COVID-19. “I think we were probably one of the first facilities that pretty much shut down and started assessing our staff when they would come in.”

Hales said she was eager to walk in her first university graduation and was planning antics for it with her 10-year-old granddaughter.

“We were trying to think, should I dance across the stage?” Hales said. “Or would I grab a walker and act like an old lady going across the stage?

“She was trying to teach me to do this ‘dab’ move,” Hales said. “I said, ‘Honey, I cannot figure that out.’”

In the end, Hales watched the celebration online instead. She did, however, get a personalized license plate that reads, “RN2BSN.”

In From Idaho To Exalt ‘In ‘Our Own Way’

Coming from a family-run dairy farm in Jerome, Idaho, EllieMae Millenkamp, 22, is the first in her family to graduate college.

Although music is her passion, Millenkamp long expected to study at an agriculture school — but Colorado State was her original choice.

Then, while visiting family in Iowa during a cousin’s visit to ISU, she fell in love with the Ames campus and recalibrated her academic path.

While at ISU, the musical Millenkamp began writing more songs and performing more online, which led to in-person shows and a local band.


And then, during her junior year, a talent scout reached out to invite her to participate in an audition for NBC’s “The Voice.” That went well and Millenkamp, in the summer before her senior year, moved to Los Angeles and made it onto the show.

She achieved second-round status before being bumped, but the experience offered her lifelong friendships and connections and invigorated her musical pursuits — which have been slowed by COVID-19. Shows have been canceled in now idled bars.

Millenkamp went back to Idaho to be with her family, like thousands of her peers also did with their families, when the ISU campus shut down.

After graduation she plans on returning and working the family farm again until her musical career has the chance to regain momentum.

But she recently returned to Ames for finals. And she and some friends, also in town, plan to celebrate graduation, even if not with an official cap and gown.

“We’ll probably have a bonfire and all hang out,” she said. “We’ll celebrate in our own way.”

Seeking Closure After Abrupt Campus Exits

Most college seniors nearing graduation get to spend their academic hours focusing on their major and interests, wrapping their four or sometimes five years with passion projects and capstone experiences.

That was Omar Khodor’s plan — with lab-based DNA sequencing on tap, along with a geology trip and policy proposal he planned to present to the Iowa Legislature. But all that got canceled — and even some requirements were waived since COVID-19 made them impossible.

“There were still a lot of a lot of things to wrap up,” he said. “A lot of things I was looking forward to.”


He’s ending the year with just three classes to finish and “absolutely” would have preferred to have a fuller plate.

But Khodor’s academic career isn’t over. He’s planning to attend law school in the fall at the University of Pennsylvania, where he’ll pursue environmental law. But this spring has diminished his enthusiasm, with the question lingering of whether in-person courses will return to campus soon.

If they don’t, he’s still leaning toward enrolling — in part — because of all the work that goes into applying and getting accepted, which he’s already done.

“But online classes are definitely less fulfilling, less motivating. You feel like you learn less,” he said. “So it will kind of be a tossup. There’ll be some trade-offs involved in what I would gain versus what I would be paying for such an expensive endeavor like law school.”

As for missing a traditional college commencement, Khodor said he will, even though he plans to participate in the virtual alternative.

“Before it got canceled, I didn’t think that I was looking forward to it as much as I actually was,” he said.

Not so much for the pomp and circumstance, but for the closure, which none of the seniors got this year. When the universities announced no one would return to campus this semester, students were away on spring break.

They had already experienced their last in-person class, their last after-class drink, their last cram session, their last study group, their last lecture, their last Iowa Memorial Union lunch — and they didn’t even know it.


“So many of us, we won’t have closure, and that can kind of be a difficult thing,” he said.

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Online Celebrations

For a list of commencement times and virtual celebrations, visit:

The University of Iowa’s commencement site at

Iowa State University’s commencement site at

University of Northern Iowa’s commencement site at

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