BYU seniors find ways to celebrate graduation despite COVID-19

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BYU professors Joel Campbell (left) and Dale Cressman (right) hold a mock graduation ceremony for Campbell’s daughter, BYU graduate Lauren Cressman and Lauren’s sister-in-law, UVU nursing graduate Rachel Cressman. (Emma Campbell)

Caps and gowns, commencement speakers, pictures with friends — all hallmarks of a traditional college graduation ceremony. But this year is drastically different. 

COVID-19 forced BYU’s graduating seniors to conclude their college experience online and disrupted their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to formally celebrate their graduation.

Various departments across campus adapted to the cancelations by holding their own virtual convocation ceremonies on their websites. The College of Family, Home and Social Sciences created a virtual convocation page for graduates of its programs. The website highlights graduating seniors and their accomplishments. It also features profiles of the valedictorians and includes virtual convocation and valedictorian speeches.

The College of Fine Arts and Communications created a “Share Your Story: #CFACGrad” campaign to allow graduating seniors to submit essays, memories, videos and photos of their experiences at BYU, which are then shared online.

Each program in the BYU Marriott School of Business will hold a virtual celebration on April 23 or 24. The College of Life Sciences uploaded virtual messages from the dean, faculty and select students to congratulate the college’s graduates. The website also allows students to upload their graduation photos or other photos or videos of their BYU memories.

The website of the College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences includes a downloadable graduation program and video talks from the dean, a faculty member and valedictorians. The college also offered free diploma covers and commemorative pins.

BYU shared a video message from President Kevin J Worthen on April 23, congratulating the Class of 2020 on its graduation day “unlike any other in BYU history.”

“As we look to the future, I’m confident that the class of 2020 will distinguish itself in many ways — that you won’t be the class that was defeated by a worldwide pandemic, but that you will face the future with clarity, optimism and renewed resolve,” President Worthen says in the video.

Despite the cancellation of an official graduation ceremony, seniors are still finding ways to celebrate the monumental occasion.

BYU broadcast journalism senior Karmen Kodia poses for a graduation photo wearing a cap, gown and mask. (Karmen Kodia)

BYU broadcast journalism senior Karmen Kodia’s family lives out of the country, so they celebrated her graduation digitally.

“My family is in Sweden and weren’t able to come so we had a virtual celebration,” she said. “I’m also having a dance party with my roommates to celebrate!”

Art education graduate Lauren Cressman said she was sad to miss out on celebrating graduation with her friends.

“I think that was something that I was probably most excited about was going to be able to walk with them at commencement and kind of share that celebration, and now all of them have moved back to different states so we can’t even do anything if we wanted to,” she said.

BYU graduate Lauren Cressman holds a diploma cover and poses for a photo with her father, Joel Campbell, a BYU journalism professor, during their mock graduation ceremony. (Emma Campbell)

Though she’s not with friends, Cressman and her family held their own mock graduation. They gathered at a park to have a “social distancing picnic,” including takeout from their favorite restaurants.

Cressman’s father and father-in-law, both BYU professors, dressed in their academic regalia to present a diploma cover to Cressman and her sister-in-law, who is graduating in nursing from UVU.

BYU economics senior Natalie Winkel had bought a ticket to go to Europe on April 26, three days after graduation.

“I was going to graduate and pack up all my stuff and go to Europe for a couple of weeks,” she said. 

Those plans are now on hold.

“It’s definitely a bummer; I feel like there’s not that closure of these four years that you worked really hard, and you get to celebrate it with all of your family and your friends,” she said.

BYU senior Natalie Winkel celebrates her graduation at her parents’ home with her brother, Mark Winkel, who is finishing up his final semester of law school. (Natalie Winkel)

But Winkel said she’s “still been able to celebrate.” Her family held a small graduation party for Winkel and her brother, who is finishing up his final semester of law school at the University of Idaho.

“We had our own little graduation party where we had cake and decorations and all of those things,” she said.

Devin Ostler, a public health senior from Salt Lake City, said her plans to celebrate will be more “low-key.”

“Probably we’ll just do something at home. Sure, it’ll be fun, but definitely more low-key with takeout or a home-cooked meal. Nothing fancy,” she said.

Like many others, Ostler expressed disappointment at not having the opportunity to celebrate in-person with friends at an official ceremony.

“I was just excited to celebrate with friends and people in my program…to be able to celebrate all of our hard work and everything all together,” she said. “Instead, none of us are together and we’re celebrating in different ways, which is good, but you don’t have that ‘we did this together’ sort of mentality anymore.”

But she’s not walking away empty-handed — she still has a degree, a free windbreaker from the College of Life Sciences and her love of BYU.

“I loved all the people I met and the teachers. And I loved that in my department, I felt like it was like friends working together — the professors were on your side. I became really good friends with them,” she said. “There’s just a big sort of camaraderie — we’re all working together. I love that I was able to do that at BYU.”

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