Graduates celebrate Commencement with small gatherings of vaccinated friends

Media Credit: Anthony Peltier | Photographer

Graduating students said they invited vaccinated friends and family to D.C. to celebrate commencement in person.

Class of 2021 graduate Frederico Michelin’s Commencement day will not take place on the National Mall this year, but instead of graduating before a crowd of thousands, he’ll gather with friends to watch their college years conclude online. 

Michelin, a sociology major, said he started planning for his own National Mall experience to celebrate Commencement in September under the assumption that Commencement would most likely be held online because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the recent increase in the number of vaccinated people across the country impacted his decision to bring his parents from New York to D.C., celebrate with a dinner and participate in small celebrations with friends. 

“It definitely has allowed me to invite my parents to come down, a celebratory dinner and it’s also allowed me to kind of plan with my friends what we want to do with whether that’s outside or inside,” he said.  

Michelin is one of more than half a dozen graduates who said in interviews they planned small gatherings with other vaccinated friends and family members to celebrate their virtual Commencement under COVID-19 guidelines after officials announced the event would be hosted online in March, drawing “mixed” reactions from students. Graduating seniors said they’re organizing celebratory dinners, watch parties and photos with friends and family around campus to celebrate their accomplishments and create memories with some form of personal gathering.

Michelin said he also enjoyed seeing the Commencement-themed structures placed around campus for students to visit and take pictures with in their Commencement attire. 

“I just kind of understood that it would be online and just I was fine with it,” Michelin said. “I wasn’t really expecting much from them to give us anything. I think what was nice is that they did decorate campus.”

Officials said in a release last month they would be unable to host a gathering on the Mall because of the National Parks Service’s restrictions on large gatherings. In the release, officials also said after having conversations with students, graduates and families they heard “repeatedly” that students would rather wait to hold Commencement on the Mall when they could invite as many friends and family as possible. 

Mari Guerra, a public health major, said she flew to D.C. from Connecticut, where she lived during the entire academic year, to celebrate Commencement with her small group of fully vaccinated friends to take group graduation pictures together around campus after being fully vaccinated. She said being vaccinated was a priority for her before she planned any type of small group gathering or celebration with friends. 

“It really does make you feel better, because it’s a level of protection that you didn’t have before,” she said. “But you know, the risk of getting COVID and the concern is always there. So we still have to be very cautious about it but definitely makes it more possible. I feel more secure to be here, because we’re all vaccinated.”

Guerra said she wished she had seen better communication between administrators and the graduating class about plans for Commencement. She said administrators emailed graduating students a survey asking whether they would prefer an in-person or remote ceremony, and she doesn’t know of many who selected the remote option, also noting the long span of time between the survey’s release and Commencement’s cancellation.

“They want to hear from our opinions, but it was just a lot of time between there so I wish there was maybe more communication,” she said. “Even between professors and the school to let us know maybe during classes or just even more check-ins and stuff like that too as well could have improved that. It’s just very hard virtually to do things.”

Adriana Tapia said she lived in D.C. this year and is having friends and family fly in to celebrate with planned events like kayaking in the Tidal Basin, hiking, going out to brunch and taking pictures on the Mall. She said she decided to organize graduation plans because everyone she will be celebrating with will be fully vaccinated. 

“This entire week has just been like a graduation week,” she said. “Everyone’s in town and they’ve been staying here at our place. So it’s just been like a week of mini-celebrations.”

Tapia said she thought it was “preemptive” of officials to call off graduation, but she appreciates the effort to still celebrate the Class of 2021, even if in smaller ways like sending students boxes with Commencement-related merchandise.

“I will say the boxes caught me by surprise,” she said. “They sent out little graduation boxes and mine just got to Seattle yesterday. That was like a nice little touch. I did not expect that at all. I would’ve preferred a graduation over a box, but yeah.”

Adriana Feijoo, a political science major, said she will celebrate partially in D.C. and partially at her home in Illinois, where she plans to hold an outdoor celebration to watch the Commencement ceremony on Facebook Live with a small group of family members. She said as a first generation student, graduating will be an especially “sentimental” experience, and although she can’t walk across the stage, she is still excited to celebrate with her family in a small group.  

“I’m a first gen student, so graduation is a big deal for my family,” she said. “So it’s a little disappointing that we don’t get to walk across the stage, but it’s still super sentimental. So, even if it is online and just a slideshow or something, it’s still a big deal. So I’m excited.”

Feijoo said while she’s been living on campus during the spring semester, she has attended celebrations that her friends hosted, like a rooftop dinner in D.C. and a day to take pictures around campus. She said she feels safer knowing she can celebrate her and her friends’ accomplishments with a low risk of contracting the virus. 

“One of my friends is having a rooftop grad party with like 15 people and everyone is vaccinated,” she said. “So I think it makes me personally feel safer going to something where I know people are vaccinated and I know people are really trying to keep things outside, which is also really helpful.”

She said it was “disappointing” that GW was one of the only schools in the DMV area to have no element of in-person Commencement. Georgetown University administrators announced their decision last month to hold an in-person Commencement at Nationals Park, and American University will hold an in-person ceremony at Bender Stadium, where graduates will receive a link to sign up for a 15-minute procession to walk across the stage. 

She said although she is disappointed in the decision to stay virtual for commencement, she understands GW is trying “their best,” and she’s trying to stay positive moving forward toward a master’s degree from the University of Maryland next year.

“My friends are just trying to make good memories from it,” she said. “And we’ll look back and say ‘Okay, we didn’t get the traditional experience, but we couldn’t change that. So just try to stay positive.’ Something that I found to be very helpful and kind of changed the mindset on it because at the end of the day, we really have no control.”

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