CORONAVIRUS

Iowa's public universities to celebrate spring graduates in unprecedented virtual ceremonies

'We are so very proud of all of you, and grateful for how quickly you've adapted'

Graduates with high honors, signified by an #x201c;I#x201d; with three stars on their sleeves, are recognized during the
Graduates with high honors, signified by an “I” with three stars on their sleeves, are recognized during the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Commencement Ceremony at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, 21 Dec. 2019. (David Harmantas/Freelance)

IOWA CITY — Although they’ve known for weeks their long-sought graduation from college won’t look like what they’ve imagined, the thousands of students across Iowa’s public universities on the cusp of earning degrees are getting a clearer picture of what their revised commencement experience could be.

The University of Iowa on Wednesday announced two ways it plans to celebrate 2020 graduates — starting with a virtual commencement that will be livestreamed on its website. Details are forthcoming, according to the university, which was supposed to host its numerous graduate and undergraduate commencement ceremonies from May 14-17.

“Hosting a virtual ceremony gives our graduates and their families a much-needed end-of-semester celebration while also protecting the health and safety of the Hawkeye community,” according to a Wednesday campus message from UI President Bruce Harreld and Provost Montse Fuentes.

Iowa State University and University of Northern Iowa also are planning livestreamed commencement celebrations and addresses.

And all three are inviting this spring’s crop of graduates to walk in the next on-campus ceremony — presumably in the winter following the fall 2020 semester. Although the UI message opened up spring 2021 as another option for this spring’s degree-earners who want to experience the graduation “walk.”

In that colleges on the campuses typically hold separate ceremonies, Harreld in his message said each UI college will organize its own virtual celebration “that reflects its unique role on campus.” The streamed ceremonies will include messages from leaders across the university and Board of Regents, along with other speakers. The virtual events also will include recognition of individual graduates.

UI will send graduating students a package in the mail that includes — among other things — a commemorative commencement program “that recognizes their achievement during this unique and challenging historic moment.”

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Participating in the upcoming virtual ceremonies will not prevent this spring’s graduates from being allowed to walk in an in-person ceremony. And graduates still can buy caps and gowns online.

“By the end of the semester, spring 2020 graduates will have faced not only the usual trials and tribulations of attaining a university degree, but also will have overcome the unprecedented situation of rapidly transitioning to online learning in the midst of a global pandemic — no mean feat,” according to the message from Harreld and Fuentes. “We are so very proud of all of you, and grateful for how quickly you’ve adapted.”

Both UNI and Iowa State commencement ceremonies were supposed to happen a week earlier — on the weekend of May 9-10. Iowa State officials continue to iron out details of their virtual celebrations, as do officials at UNI, which is asking those wanting to participate in next month’s unprecedented convocation to sign up online.

And UNI has been clear to emphasize the difference between graduation and commencement.

“Graduation is attaining a degree, whereas commencement is the event celebrating attaining that degree,” according to a UNI message earlier this month. “The cancellation of commencement does not impact your ability to graduate.”

Summer Changes

Beyond graduation, the universities are continuing to update their respective communities on more extensions to their amended academic experiences — including on the UI campus, which last week announced it’s nixing all in-person summer programming from May 16 through June 13, and possibly longer.

The university’s summer programming — in addition to its normal college-level classes — includes youth programs, sports and wildlife camps, research programs, conferences and workshops, and other adult programming.

Summer programming not involving minors might develop virtual alternatives, according to the university. But programs and camps for kids must work with the Office of the Provost on alternatives, which will be considered on a case-by-case basis.

Also moving online are much of the campuses’ orientation and registration programs and services. Alternatively, the campuses are planning opportunities for new students and their families to connect virtually with one another.

At Iowa State, the bumped summer programming will mean expanded welcome week activities come August, although ISU President Wendy Wintersteen in a Wednesday message to campus acknowledged the fluidity of the situation.

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“It is clear that the circumstances of this crisis continue to change and escalate,” she wrote. “Consequently, we are directing the campus community to be prepared to continue with our reduced campus operations into May and perhaps longer.”

“At this time, we cannot predict when full operations will resume.”

Iowa State, as it looks ahead to a “new normal,” has convened a “recovery working group” to begin planning for a return to full campus operations. That ramp up will be guided by federal and state experts and officials and “will likely happen incrementally,” Wintersteen said.

Still, at this month’s Board of Regents meeting, board President Mike Richards said the regents are “planning on full, normal operations of our universities for the fall 2020 semester.

“This includes in-person classes, reopening of residence halls and food service, and other campus services,” Richards said, acknowledging the board will continue to follow public health guidance at the local and national level.

“Together, we will weather this storm and come out stronger on the other side.”

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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