The College of Humanities and Sciences celebrates its graduates

How do you honor graduates while a global pandemic rages on? Personalized slideshows, Zoom ceremonies and commencement speakers.
Youtube screengrabs of faculty and staff

Right: More than 40 faculty and staff contributed to a mash-up video in celebration of CHS grads

On March 19, 2020, VCU announced that all graduation ceremonies at the university would be canceled for May due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though necessary, the disappointment and grief were felt immediately by graduates. The College of Humanities and Sciences (CHS) quickly got to work planning the best virtual celebration possible for its students. While this virtual celebration would in no way replace an in-person commencement ceremony, CHS hoped to create a special online experience that expressed their admiration and excitement for their most recent grads.

To kick off the virtual celebration, the College launched a graduation webpage on May 9. The page featured a video message from Don Young, Ph.D., interim dean of CHS, as well as special mash-up videos from faculty, staff and alumni. The faculty and staff mash-up video included more than 40 members of the CHS community from nearly every department in the College. And these faculty and staff got creative: There was a “Tiger King” parody, a short flute performance, appearances by children and pets, and plenty of best wishes for the recent grads.

CHS alumni also took part by sending in videos of their best graduation advice. Among the many sentiments, alums urged grads to “work hard even when no one is watching,” “follow your heart and your dreams” and to “use your resiliency now as you head into the world.” Graduates were also able to submit photos and messages for individual personalized slides that were hosted on the page.

Departments within CHS got into the virtual celebration as well. Each department had its own graduation page that included a message from its chair, a listing of its graduates and end-of-the-year award winners. Some departments, like the Department of History and the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, posted videos of student speakers and alumni/special guests. And some departments went even further, hosting a live Zoom celebration for their students.

a computer screen showing a zoom celebration for the department of forensic science
The Department of Forensic Science hosted a live Zoom graduation celebration for their graduates.

“It was definitely a worthwhile experience,” said Tracey Dawson Cruz, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Forensic Science. Ninety guests logged in for their department live Zoom celebration. “Several graduates and their families have commented to me about how special it was for them to have an opportunity to meet and celebrate with our faculty and staff.” The Zoom celebration featured remarks by Tracey and an introduction of faculty and staff. The group announced award recipients and showed recipients’ pictures. Afterward, faculty divided into breakout rooms based on concentration where grads and their families could have a more intimate conversation with their professors.

Candace Mason ’20 was one of the grads who joined the live Zoom celebration with her families and friends. “It was important for me to say final goodbyes to faculty and staff,” she explained. “My favorite part of the virtual celebration was getting to meet other students' families and hearing what the other graduates' next plans are. I also enjoyed laughing and joking with faculty when we broke off into the different breakout rooms.”

Parents appreciated the effort that went into these live Zoom celebrations. “While these graduating seniors were deprived of the full ‘pomp and circumstance’ of a traditional ceremony, everyone's heartfelt words of wisdom and encouragement seemed to more than make up for any loss,” emailed Nancy Tramontin, mother of Matthew Toscano ’20, who participated in a special celebration for the Department of African American Studies. “I think it afforded participating seniors some closure they’d been missing.”

For Nardos Iyob ’20, the small Zoom ceremony hosted by his department was instrumental in celebrating his accomplishment. “I found myself having a hard time grappling with the fact that this [virtual graduation] was going to be the way I closed out this chapter of my life. Graduating, sans the pandemic, was something that already felt so unreal and this feeling heightened as time passed and I finished up all of my assignments,” he explained. “However, the departmental ceremony was instrumental in helping that feeling subside. Our virtual ceremony was necessary because it cemented the fact that we actually graduated and provided a space where we were individually celebrated by the same people who helped us get to this point. The ceremony was small and intimate which was honestly perfect.”  

Nadia Abdshah, a graduate of the Department of Biology in the V.C.U. College of Humanities and Sciences, says,
Graduates were able to upload photos and messages for a personalized slide featured on the CHS graduation website.

One of the live graduation highlights for Alex Arnaud ’20, a student in the Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, was a personal testimonial from one of its professors, bee Coston, Ph.D. “Many of the things bee mentioned, I hadn't expected. It was very fulfilling to hear what bee thought of me from an instructor perspective. Some of the most moving statements were how they believe I am very caring, and always motivated to help others, which I hadn't considered until now,” says Alex. The Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies also celebrated with a Zoom club/dance party.

Even though the virtual celebrations are over, CHS looks forward to the day when all May and August graduates can be together again to officially celebrate. All grads are invited to participate in the December graduation. Details will be forthcoming. In the meantime, congratulations to all the College of Humanities and Sciences graduates. We are so proud of you!

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