Donned in her high school graduation cap, Heather Davies sat awkwardly on a Zoom call with teachers and classmates as she graduated from college. The momentous occasion was not quite how she imagined it.
Davies, who graduated with an interdisciplinary Bachelor of Arts degree emphasizing journalism and fashion business, said it was bittersweet not to walk across a physical stage, but she is grateful to have graduated surrounded by the people she loves, both in person and online.
Despite campus closures and event cancellations due to the coronavirus pandemic, Columbia’s spirited Manifest Urban Arts Festival and 2020 commencement rose to the times through an online platform.
Columbia encouraged graduates to personalize their remote graduation through choosing ceremony experience videos from the online commencement page from May 16 through May 30, according to an email sent from the college.
The site page provided links where students could access their “modified program,” a downloadable document listing the names of graduates who completed their master’s and bachelor’s degrees, a downloadable program with student anecdotes, a connection to a virtual choir comprised of faculty and staff singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and the 2020 Commencement cut of “Manifest 2020-RISE.”
The Columbia community also had the opportunity to attend and experience Manifest events online.
From May 11-15, Manifest’s virtual festival celebrated with live events and individual showcases from a multitude of Columbia departments. At home, viewers had the ability to interact through social media by tagging @CCCManifest and using the hashtags #CCCManifest, #ReadytoRise and #ShowYourWork.
During the 2020 Commencement video, President and CEO Kwang-Wu Kim ensured that students knew graduation was a major accomplishment, in spite of a global pandemic.
“Many of you have made sacrifices and tough choices to achieve this goal—a statement equally true for the parents, grandparents, family members, friends and teachers who have supported you [and] cheered you along the way,” Kim said.
Some departments also held online commencement celebrations for students and their families.
Tony Truty, a graduating senior who majored in photography, said the highlights for his department’s commencement ceremony were amusing technical issues where families forgot to mute their microphones.
“My whole family was dying of laughter, and I imagine everyone else was because somebody’s grandma or mother joined the call and was like, ‘Am I in?'” he said. “You can see her because she was on the screen. She got super excited and [was] clapping. It was so cute and funny.”
Truty said he was also amused when Photography Department Chair Ross Sawyers played “Walk This Way,” a traditional song during commencement, in the background during their commencement Zoom call. Although Truty could identify the Run DMC and Aerosmith hit single, the song would cut out due to Zoom’s microphone quality.
Madison Potter, a graduating senior who majored in advertising, thanked her professors in the Communication Department—specifically Associate Chair Peg Murphy—for the time and effort they put into making her class feel special and giving their graduation a more intimate and memorable touch than if it were in person. She said as an introvert, she lucked out with a “Zoom-mencement.”
“Being able to actually sit with my family was really cool [because] I wouldn’t have done that at graduation,” she said.
Davies, though, is still unsure how to feel following the online ceremony.
“It’s just a weird time, but I think embracing and adapting to what’s happening is the best that we can do as a class of 2020,” Davies said.
Loryn Eagleson, a graduating cinema art and science major, said in the Commencement 2020 video “Student Voices” that “COVID graduates” are entering a world of the unimaginable.
“Our graduation shouldn’t be just about what’s happening now. It should be an expression of gratitude to our education,” Eagleson said.
Kim and Senior Vice President and Provost Marcella David presented bachelor’s and master’s degrees during the Commencement 2020 “Degree Conferral” video.
“I would like to recognize our faculty for their scholarly and creative endeavors and for their service to our students—especially during the recent mid-semester transition to remote instruction,” David said.
While Kim tries to differentiate his commencement speeches each year, he said he often delivers a similar message about hope and the future. He said Columbia prepares its students to become “authors of the culture of their times,” referencing the school’s mission statement.
Kim said the driving point of graduating never changes and the achievement should not be “diminished by repetition.”
“Class of 2020, you are graduating at an unprecedented moment in human history when things seem to have fallen apart,” Kim said. “But here is my graduation challenge to each one of you: Rise above the sadness and see the extraordinary opportunities in front of you. Seize the moment, lead, and show the world what you are capable of and how essential you truly are.”