Quick Tips! COVID-19 and Commencement

Videos March 24, 2020

No doubt, college is challenging. It requires a great deal of commitment and resilience to get through a program and become a graduate. So, when students no longer have the opportunity to celebrate their success at commencement, they become heartbroken. In this Quick Tips! video, Cheryl Broom offers advice on how to handle the “canceling commencement” conversation so graduates (and supporters) don’t feel robbed of their time to shine. 

Hi, I’m Cheryl Broom, president of Interact Communications, and we are now a couple weeks into the COVID-19 crisis. Most community colleges have moved their courses to an online format and others are in the process of doing so right now. We’ve also seen a lot of community colleges move to either cancel or postpone their commencement ceremonies, and I would venture to guess this is a trend that we’re going to continue to see in the upcoming weeks.

Commencement is such an important milestone. I mean, look. Even behind me in my home office, I have my degrees hung. I can remember my commencement ceremonies. My grandpa was a janitor who went on to form a really successful janitorial company in Los Angeles, and he never graduated from college. He came to my graduation ceremonies and I’ll never forget getting my diploma up on stage and looking out in the audience and seeing my grandpa standing up and he did a clog. Clogging is a type of folk dance and my grandpa was clogging in the stands and had his hat and was whooping it around and was just so proud and so excited and just a memory that has lasted with me my entire life. And I think it’s safe to say all of us that graduated from high school or from our bachelor or our master’s or our doctoral programs have had that be one of the most proudest moments of our lives. And I think our students right now are feeling depressed and a little robbed that they’re not going to be able to have that same level of excitement.

So as I’m thinking about messaging and how to break the news to your students and what you can say, for those of you who haven’t made the decision yet on whether or not to cancel commencement, I think it’s important that you have some sort of holding statement that you let your students know that you’re looking into whether or not you’re going to postpone the commencement ceremony and that you’re looking at other ways to celebrate this monumental accomplishment. Don’t leave them guessing whether or not this decision is going to be made. Let them know you’re discussing it internally.

Also, don’t just cancel commencement. The language you use is really important. I would say that if you do decide to postpone it, that you use the word postpone and that you let them know explicitly that you are looking at other ways to celebrate their successes, including maybe holding the commencement ceremony in the fall or celebrating virtually. You don’t have to have all the answers right now, but I think it’s important that you recognize that commencement is a really, really, really important part of celebrating their accomplishments and that you as an institution want to be there for them and provide them the opportunity to celebrate all of their hard work over the past couple of years.

So be kind, be compassionate, communicate frequently. I would suggest that you add commencement to your FAQs, even if you’re still just examining it, on your COVID-19 response website. If you have an FAQ section, have one of them be “Is my community college going to hold a commencement ceremony?” And if you don’t know yet, then put in there that you’re currently examining it and that you’ll be sending out updates as they become available.

We’ve seen some really creative things across the world—students who have done amazing things to still celebrate digitally, including virtual commencements, posting pictures of their mortar boards, all decorated on Instagram. Maybe if you are postponing it, still on the original commencement day, you send out a video congratulating students on their success and asking them to share. Create a hashtag so that students can share what they’re doing on their graduation day even if it is postponed. You know, Get together with your campus, find some way to create community in this crisis. I think community is still so important, and celebrating success is still such a key part of what we need to do as educators.

So, I hope I gave you some ideas, some things to contemplate, some things to think about. If you want to give me a call and just chat about some ideas you have or you want to share ideas with colleges across the nation, we do have a message board that we created at Interact called discourse for COVID-19 and you can get to it by typing on discourse.interactcom.com. Post some commencement ideas. I know that the NCMPR message board or their listserv has had a lot of ideas floating around there as well. It’s important right now to stay connected and to make sure your students know that you’re thinking about them, and that even though they might not get the commencement ceremony this spring, like they always dreamed of, they will get one and you will help them celebrate. That’s an important message for them to know right now.

Well, that’s all I have to offer today and I hope you took something away. And like always, thank you so much for all the hard work that you do for community college students across the nation. I’ll talk to you next time. Bye.