May 26, 2020

Class of 2020: Pomp, masks and history in the making

Taking the sting out of losing a memorable moment like convocation, schools and universities are rising to the occasion with extraordinary solutions

High-fiving it on Crescent Road for grad photos? Don’t think so. Dancing at the BMO Centre after all the high-achievers haul in their awards? Not this year. Taking that triumphant walk across the stage at UCalgary’s Jack Simpson Gym to shake hands with the chancellor? Nope.

Instead of all the usual graduation and convocation traditions, this year’s “Pandemic Class” — what Oprah Winfrey has dubbed 2020’s cohort of graduates — is saluting this milestone imaginatively. Whether it’s through their laptops from afar or in their cars at red-carpet drive-by stages, it turns out that the curve ball thrown at life by COVID-19 is being used as a lesson in adaptability.

Determined not to give graduation a miss, Colson Buchanan says he intends to mark the five years he spent earning his BA by attending UCalgary’s virtual graduation on June 25 with his family, “in our living room wearing ‘ath-leisure.’ Although there’s some underlying cognitive dissonance with it all that makes me feel like I might still end up getting a bit more dressed-up for the day.

Colson Buchanan

Colson Buchanan, BA'20, says he intends to mark UCalgary’s virtual graduation with his family, in is living room wearing ‘ath-leisure.’

Speaking like a savvy poli-sci grad, Buchanan puts his loss into context. “With so many people losing their jobs, struggling to cover bills, becoming sick and worse — it’s hard to feel terribly upset about losing convocation, but still . . . it is a disappointment, “ he says. “An official ceremony does make it feel more special and provides some proper closure to a life stage, in a sense.”

Having had time to process the lack of a traditional celebration, Buchanan optimistically says, “If we are able to come back in the fall, or later, to actually walk the stage, then it’s almost like we got a little bit extra in the grand scheme of things from the virtual celebration. So, in that sense, it’s a bit of a plus!”

Like Buchanan, Ben Fleury, BA’20, intends on crossing the stage at the Jack Simpson when UCalgary deems it safe to do so.

Ben Fleury

Ben Fleury, BA’20, found time in his final year of studies to be lead of Strategic Initiatives for UCalgary's Future Alumni Network (FAN).

His original plan to host a big bash for family and friends has shrunk to a backyard barbecue with just close family members, with which he’s fine.

However you choose to mark life’s critical moments, assistant psychology professor Dr. Deinera Exner, PhD, maintains they should still be celebrated. Somehow. Somewhere. “Milestones tell us we have achieved something our culture considers important, and that we are ready to embark on the next stage of our life,” she explains. “The purpose of these ceremonies is to mark the closing of one life stage, and the beginning of another.”

As principal of St. Martin de Porres High School in Airdrie, Elisé Saraceni, BEd’03, agrees. Committed to hosting something memorable, their Grade 12 grad will be two-fold. One will be a virtual graduation, complete with video presentations from the school’s valedictorian, staff members and priest, Father Julian Studden. Part of that celebration will be slides showcasing each grad’s individual accomplishments.

Part 2 will be a drive-through graduation on June 18 where families will be invited to drive to the school with their graduate in the front passenger seat. “Students will make their way in a parade-like fashion towards the front entrance of our school, where we will have a stage,” explains Saraceni. “When they get to that front-line position, the student will come out of their car, walk across the red carpet and step upon a stage where they will get their graduation photo taken with their cap and tassel. Each student will also receive a graduation box containing their diploma, and other special treats from the school. Graduates can choose to wear either their formal wear or their cap and gown.”

In attempting to explain why we should celebrate life’s transitions — whether it’s a graduation, marriage, a birth or death — Exner says, “these markers reflect what is considered important in that culture in a given time and place. They also signify what that person has completed or that they’ve achieved some aspect of culturally relevant socialization.”

Graduation is a moment of “pride and elevation,” adds Caroline Banadar, BA’90, director of advancement at Strathcona-Tweedsmuir School. “Care should be taken in planning a graduation ceremony that makes students feel those sentiments and feel good about themselves when moving on to their next stage of life goals. If you lose that opportunity to make a graduating student feel special, that feeling of let down or disappointment could remain with them for years.”

With a graduating population of only 64 students, the independent school is marking Grade 12 graduation in several ways. A social media campaign is already highlighting 10 to 12 grads each week. Next up will be lawn signs placed in front of each graduate’s home to let neighbours know; following that will be large images of each grad lining the school’s driveway to honour the class. 

Oyinkansola Akintola

On June 18, each graduate and their family will be invited to the school at a specific time for an individualized prize-giving ceremony where the student will receive their diploma and awards and have a chance to say goodbye to their teachers. Also in the works is the school’s own drive-in collective class graduation at Spruce Meadows where graduates will have a chance to walk the stage and get cheered on by their family and friends.

Holding the title of VP Events for UCalgary’s Education Students’ Association has meant that Tina Miller, BSc’18, BEd’20, and her team had spent endless hours preparing the annual grad celebration before their plans were kyboshed due to COVID-19. But Miller has made the best of it and is now looking forward to “multiple opportunities to celebrate in different ways from a faculty-specific grad to the overall UCalgary grad [June 25, at 6 p.m.], as well as next fall’s convocation ceremony.

Tina Miller

Tina Miller, BSc'18, BEd'20, is now looking forward to “multiple opportunities to celebrate grad in different ways."

“However you celebrate convocation, I think it’s important to recognize the accomplishment of successfully completing a degree. It acknowledges the time and effort invested in learning and developing both personally and professionally, and provides closure to that chapter of your life. 

“For me,” Miller continues, “convocation is an opportunity to reflect on your memories and accomplishments, and to get excited about the future. It signifies new opportunities and beginnings.”

Whether you’re celebrating graduation ceremonies in Grade 3, 6, 9, 12 or university, the Class of 2020 is “truly making history,” sums up Saraceni, “and they will experience a graduation unlike any other previous cohort.”

Who said this cohort doesn’t have a reason to toss their mortarboards skyward?