Welcome to graduation season! It’s that time of year when graduation celebrations flood our social media feeds and personalized announcements arrive at our doorstep. From May through June we see them all – college graduations, high school graduations, even celebrations for completing middle school, elementary school, kindergarten, and Pre-K!
I fully embrace the mindset of #CelebrateEverything, so I love seeing children (and adults!) celebrated for their accomplishments. Yes, I know, achieving a college degree is much more difficult than moving through the ranks of preschool, but is it worth acknowledging and celebrating transitions in life? You bet!
Celebrations bring people together.
Celebrations show others their value.
Celebrations are a reminder to us all that milestone moments matter.
The Class of 2020 knows what it feels like to have celebrations taken away. For 12-16 years, they imagined what their graduation day would be like only to have it dismantled before their eyes due to shuttered schools at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While my three children were not of graduation age at the time, I felt the loss for others deep in my soul. It was a strange and unnerving time of paralysis when families didn’t gather and travel outside the home was limited. Some schools tried their best to honor graduates with individual and drive-thru ceremonies combined with recorded salutations, but it wasn’t quite the same.
Look how far we’ve come in just one year.
The Class of 2021 is the first class who started their senior year not even knowing if they would finish. It was impossible to predict in the fall what our country (and our world!) would look like in the spring. There was fear, apprehension, and a million unknowns. Words like “pivot” and “quarantine” dominated conversations and mask wearing was no longer optional, but a requirement. In-person classes shifted to online Zoom meetings and dining halls no longer served meals in a cafeteria. Everything was turned upside-down in the attempt to keep students on track with their studies.
Now the Class of 2021 is part of uprooted change, embracing a shift in traditions we’ve held dear to our hearts. With vaccines in the U.S. readily available for adults and teens, we are slowly working our way back to some sense of normalcy, once again entering a season of celebration.
As our firstborn prepared to graduate from Christopher Newport University last month, we were in awe of the many ways the school embraced a spirit of innovation while providing their students a graduation day experience they would never forget. While it was difficult (and sometimes nearly impossible!) to step away from decades-old traditions, the pandemic forced the hand of change, and CNU rose to the challenge. They transformed what was old and made it new again. Below are some of the highlights from the Class of 2021’s graduation day, shining a light on how they blended tradition with modernization.
Prior to graduation day, students receive certificates, cords, and pins for various accomplishments they’ve earned. This year, due to COVID restrictions, no families were allowed to attend Senior Week celebrations. While this seems like a loss, it was actually a gain, as the university spread the ceremonies out across an entire week and live streamed many for parents to view on their YouTube channel. Thanks to this change, I was able to virtually attend almost all of Katrina’s events and take photos, screenshots, and video recordings of her accomplishments.
Captains for Life
As part of Senior Week, students were invited to a champagne social hour followed by a live streamed ceremony where students were awarded their “Captains for Life” pin, designating them as CNU alumni. Even though we were more than an hour away, we loved being able to feel like we were part of the ceremony through the YouTube live stream! The students loved receiving their official CNU Alumni champagne glasses as a memento from the celebration, too.
For the first time in the history of CNU, the traditional graduation ceremony of pomp and circumstance was reimagined and reconstructed to celebrate graduates and their families in a new and innovative way. The entire campus was filled with “stations” where students and families could gather to take photos, participate in activities, and be fully present for the traditional walk across the stage. Instead of filling the Great Lawn with hundreds of chairs and sitting for hours in the blazing heat with no shade, waiting for the one moment our child would have their name called to accept their diploma, frantically trying to capture the moment from a distance, we spent an entire day meandering through the entire campus with a front-row view of that magical moment.
Four years prior, when students arrived on campus their freshman year, one of their orientation activities was to stand together for a photo, forming the numbers 2021 with their bodies. This image was displayed as part of their Senior Week celebration, then students had an opportunity to sign the poster on graduation day indicating where they were standing. This is one of the many traditions we would not have seen in prior years; it was fun to play “Where’s Katrina” while she searched for her image on the banner!
Another graduation station we enjoyed was Katrina visiting her freshman dorm and taking photos with the dorm sign. It was nostalgic to reminisce about her first move-in day, the life-long friends she met here, and all the memories she created at the start of her college career.
During Welcome Week of their freshman year, students were given a penny wrapped in a cardboard display with printed reflections about respect and honor. They were told to hold on to the penny as they would have an opportunity to leave their mark on the campus by tossing their penny in the main fountain on graduation day.
In years past, students completed their penny toss in a single line, as they marched towards the Great Lawn for graduation. It was quick, without an audience, merely a task to complete along the way to receiving their diploma. This year, however, the penny toss was one we all could enjoy as Katrina made a wish for her future, tossing the penny in the fountain.
Ringing the Bell
When students first make their way across campus as formally admitted students their freshman year, they take turns ringing the bell at the Clock Tower, signaling the start of their academic journey. The next time they ring the bell is on graduation day. It was such joy to be able to watch Katrina participate in this time-honored tradition, something we would not have been able to experience in years past!
Walking Across the Stage
In order to accommodate all the students and their families on graduation day, each school was provided a time slot where students could walk across the stage to receive their diploma. What made this tradition extra-special this year was that families could walk with their child from the start of the line to the end, with a family member receiving the honor of placing the hood over their gown right before they officially graduated. Then, as students walked the final stretch of the path leading to the stage, families were directed to stand right in front of the stage to capture the moment with photos and videos. Best of all, the event was also live-streamed on YouTube, so families who couldn’t attend due to the mandated limit on tickets, could still be a part of this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
While a few professors were nearby for photo opportunities, it was impossible to have them all gathered in the same space due to social distancing restrictions. CNU embraced their creative side by creating full-sized cut-outs of professors that lined the Great Lawn, so students could take photos with them as they finished their graduation walk leaving the stage.
Another CNU tradition was having students and their families write a personalized letter to the graduate that they would open at their 50th class reunion. Graduates were invited to enter the Alumni House, another nod to alumni status, and each person placed their letter in the collection box. Katrina also received her first official alumni gift, too!
It’s fair to say that we were greatly impressed with all the thought and planning that was put in place to make graduation day extra-special for all the graduates. The day was a success in so many ways and we have dozens of photos that captured our joy in the process. Best of all, the college acknowledged the memory-making moments missed by the Class of 2020, offering this exact same experience for them the weekend before Katrina’s graduation!
It’s my hope as schools look ahead to planning graduation ceremonies for future classes, they might be inspired by the innovative approach to long-standing traditions CNU created for their students this year.
Change can be good, even in the midst of a pandemic.