Virtual commencement receives mixed reactions from students

Many graduates left virtual commencement feeling disappointed, unfulfilled

“Well, here we are,” President Michael Crow said to kick off ASU's virtual graduation ceremony on Monday. The tone from Crow's opening line matched the feelings of many graduates, as the culmination of years of studies ended with a socially distant, online farewell.

Many ASU graduates expressed disappointment in the execution of virtual commencement on social media. Some online posts called out "depressing" speeches made by deans, videos celebrating ASU's adaptation to remote learning more than the graduates, and accused it of being a "choppy presentation." Other students were appreciative of ASU's efforts to make online graduation possible and understood that the circumstances were far from normal. 

The announcement that convocation and commencements would be moved online to prevent the spread of COVID-19 came in early April after Crow told The State Press the University would not rush to make a premature decision.

READ MORE: ASU moves Spring 2020 commencement online

'The most depressing speech ever'

The W. P. Carey School of Business convocation speech, in particular, sparked a reaction on social media, with students calling the school's virtual celebration with faculty, friends, peers and family members "impersonal."

Dean Amy Hillman's speech repeated, "if this were an ordinary convocation," followed by a list of traditions at University convocations, including group selfies, recognition of accomplishments and handshakes that made Hillman's hand hurt for days. 

"There is nothing ordinary about this convocation," Hillman said, later adding, "While we're all happy about your accomplishments, some of us are also anxious, grieving or feeling not quite like ourselves."

READ MORE: The stolen semester: Seniors reflect on moments lost to COVID-19 

Lindsay Cameron, a graduating senior majoring in marketing, posted to the ASU subreddit asking other graduates if Hillman's speech was "the most depressing speech ever," and if they also felt as though it was a short lecture consisting of "everything you won't do this year."

"It would have been nice for her speech to have focused on our class's accomplishments and work ethic rather than the negative situations and emotions that have been the result of the virus," Cameron wrote in an email. "Her speech was unnecessarily dark and gloomy for a ceremony that was supposed to be joyful and celebratory."

Cameron said the online ceremony was the best it could be given the circumstances, but it did "make it feel a lot less exciting and special" than it typically would be, she said.

Hillman said she was unaware of critiques of the speech and received no complaints from students and their families. She said her highest priority was student achievement and she encouraged everyone who can return to campus for future graduation ceremonies. 

"I am particularly proud of the way the University and our students responded to the challenges of the Spring semester and hoped to express that, in a time that is anything but ordinary, our students have performed in an extraordinary manner," Hillman wrote in an email. 

Good intentions, mixed reactions 

Some said they recognized the good intentions of University faculty, staff and administrators but were still unsatisfied with the results.

Darian Holahan, a graduating senior with majors in biological sciences and business communication, agreed that there was a more negative tone to the speech, saying, “We don't get to walk across the stage, we don't get to have that closure."

"It feels like your education ... is a letdown," Holahan said.

Holahan also took issue with what the commencement was focused on, saying it "seemed more focused on the University and what they've done during this time rather than on the students."

Students of The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences felt the same, saying their convocation speech, delivered by Deans Patrick Kenney, Jeffrey Cohen, Nancy Gonzales and Elizabeth Wentz seemed more like an advertisement than a celebration of hard work.

The ceremony featured videos from 2019 that highlighted the school's course and ASU's ranking as No. 1 in innovation rather than individual's accomplishments, students complained. 

READ MORE: ASU named No. 1 in innovation for fifth straight year

Kenney wanted to make sure faculty and staff were appreciated for their work in the commencement for helping students learn.

"Graduation is a wonderful time for families and friends, and especially for graduating seniors,"  Kenney said. "But also for faculty and staff because ultimately, the goal of the University is for you to come, be transformed, learn, study and be eager to graduate."

A rushed, yet passionately made product

Graduating senior Ferlynn Yankiling, who majored in family and human development, criticized the quality of the commencement experience, saying the package "felt like it was rushed."

"As an online undergraduate student, my dream was to walk on stage to show my friends and family of my accomplishments," Yankiling wrote in a message to The State Press. "It's like a rite of passage for everyone after years of hard work."

Yankiling recognized it was not the University's fault for the rushed convocation and called it an "unexpected event" and thanked ASU for taking precautions even as the rest of the state began to open up.

Peter Lafford, ASU professor emeritus and multilingual technology professional, has spent more than 25 years announcing names at commencement ceremonies at ASU. 

He detailed the preparatory work needed to execute the commencement ceremonies online, ranging from work between two companies, as well as work from coordinators from every college to prepare slides specific to each student and gathering videos together from their school’s respective deans.

He said all of the work, including that of Melissa Werner, the executive director of the Office of University Events & Protocol and the Office of University Ceremonies, was put into making the moment for each student, "the last thing they hear," as memorable as possible. 

Despite some disappointment from graduates, many reminisced positively on their experiences at ASU and expressed their excitement to finally graduate, giving thanks to the University for the past four years.

"I knew that I wouldn't have the typical graduation ceremony for my undergrad degree," Cameron wrote. "But that isn't ASU's fault because other colleges across the nation are having to do the same thing during this time period. It's just a matter of being in the wrong time and place for my graduating class."


Reach the reporters at pjhanse1@asu.edu and wmyskow@asu.edu and follow @piperjhansen and @wmyskow on Twitter. 

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