Fitchburg State Announces Virtual Commencement


Photo was taken from the 1989 Fitchburg State yearbook by Jordan Costa.

-Jordan Costa

As the spring semester continues to move forward, the thought of a graduation ceremony has reached the surface regarding the 2021 spring commencement. As the students at Fitchburg State watched their peers in the 2020 class graduate virtually, the 2021 seniors have crossed their fingers and toes hoping the world would be in a healthier and safer position to hold a version of an in-person ceremony in the spring of 2021. Unfortunately, Wednesday, March 3, the president’s office sent out an announcement that declared the decision has been made to hold the spring 2021 commencement virtually. 

In a statement the President’s office sent out announcing the virtual graduation decision, President Lapidus explains that the decision had to be made to ensure enough time to create the virtual celebration.

“The Commencement Committee has consulted with many constituents including students, staff, and colleagues at other institutions to consider the best path forward. After much deliberation, we have made the difficult decision to celebrate our Class of 2021 commencement ceremonies virtually. I understand this decision will come as a disappointment to many of you. However, making this decision now allows us the time to create a virtual celebration worthy of the accomplishments of the Class of 2021.”

The news came as a shock for some as the decision was made shortly after Governor Baker put out a press release stating the next phase of the Massachusetts reopening plan. The press release from the governor indicated that on March 1 stage three step two would begin, stating, “Indoor performance venues such as concert halls, theaters, and other indoor performance spaces will be allowed to reopen at 50% capacity with no more than 500 persons.”

Emotions throughout the students have been running high as some feel that the university has not exhausted all efforts to try to meet the governor’s mandates to hold in-person graduation.  

“I understand the decision to have virtual graduation, as the first and most important factor is the health and safety of everyone involved. With that being said, I feel as though all options were not thoroughly explored. It is frustrating to have worked so hard for four years and just have our name pop across a screen. Walking across the graduation stage with my peers, to be recognized for all of our hard work has been a vision in my head for years and it came as a huge disappointment that we will not have any in-person graduation.” says Lucy Orne, a 2021 senior. 

Orne expresses that after having so much taken away because of the restrictions, such as student clubs and events on campus, spring break, etc. that making this decision about graduation seems unfair because the state is lifting restrictions and concert venues are able to hold events, therefor accommodations should have been able to be arranged to give the 2020 graduates something to remember. To finally have the chance to applaud their fellow graduates and say one final goodbye as this chapter in their lives comes to a close.

“I feel as though the decision to cancel an in-person ceremony was premature. I wish the school would have spent more time considering alternative solutions and found a way to celebrate the graduates in a safe and socially distanced environment. For example, why can’t we have separate graduations broken down by major and instead just have our friends and family live-stream? I’m confident that the committee had our best interests in mind and I’m sure it was probably a hard decision to make. However, I still can’t help but feel that all options to have an in-person ceremony could have been given more thought ” says Orne.

The email that was sent determining the graduation plan did include that the committee has been monitoring the governor’s reopening plan, but preparations have to get started for some kind of ceremony and the safest option right now is for the virtual graduation. With May being three months away, there is still too much time to know if the state of the world will continue to move in a positive direction or not, and planning any kind of graduation is not something that can be done overnight. 

Fitchburg State’s Director of Public Relations, Matthew Bruun, gives insight on the planning that goes into making a virtual graduation possible. There are many people involved that have specific jobs to do to make the video happen and it is arguably more labor-intensive than producing an in-person ceremony. The school works with a company to produce the video, participants who are giving speeches have to be filmed and edited, the slides with the names have to be made, and other material that the graduates receive must be ordered and packaged to be sent out accordingly. The school is continuously working hard to make this ceremony even more successful than the one held in December for the 2020 graduates which received a lot of positive feedback. Brunn shares how the school came to this difficult decision.  

“The paramount concern was preserving the health and safety of the community. As an institution, we have been keeping a close watch on COVID-19 infections on the campus and in the region, and we are also aware of the state’s directives concerning reopening. We must remain in compliance with state directives as a public institution, and gathering restrictions still exist. While conditions at the state and local level are trending in the right direction for the moment, it would be irresponsible to wait on making a decision.” says Bruun.

Although the disappointment of having in-person graduation is upon the students, Orne says that she and her other graduating friends still plan to safely celebrate this big accomplishment with family and friends.

“Many of us haven’t seen our classmates in person for over a year. We left for spring break our junior year last March, not knowing that it would be the last time we got to see them before we graduated. I was looking forward to having an in-person graduation so I could have had the chance to congratulate and say goodbye to everyone before we went on our separate paths, even if it had to be from a distance. However, my close friends and I have made the promise that we will make our graduation day as special as possible. We plan to safely celebrate with each other and our families as well as have pictures taken in our caps and gowns on campus.”

Evelyn Zimmerman, a 2020 Fitchburg State graduate in Human Services, knows all too well what the seniors are going through right now. Last spring, when the decision was made to push back graduation for the class of 2020, they were disappointed but understanding of the unprecedented time. It was not until October 15, 2020 that a decision was made and a virtual ceremony would take place in December for the spring and winter 2020 graduates. 

“My initial reaction was heartbroken. To me, graduation is the grand finale to college! My peers and I have worked so hard for that moment to walk across the stage. As time went on I knew it was in the best interest of everyone’s health.” explains Zimmerman.

Zimmerman was honored along with the Spring 2020 graduates on Dec. 16, 2020. She expressed that the school was able to celebrate the graduates as best they could. The school was constantly sending emails and keeping the graduates in their thoughts and the virtual ceremony was a great alternative during the restricted times. 

“I can understand and relate to what the class of 2020 is going through. The advice I have for them is that we are living in history and to focus on the positive, class of 2021, you did it!” 

She shares that at the end of the day, she got her degree, and not having a graduation ceremony does not diminish the hard work that she has put in to earn it. 

Matthew Bruun shares that there are plans in the works to get students involved in the virtual ceremony, as well as a safe way for students to be recognized in person in front of their families and loved ones. These plans will be communicated with students as soon as they are finalized. Bruun acknowledges the disappointment of this decision and ensures that the achievements of the graduating class of 2021 will not go unnoticed or uncelebrated. 

“We completely understand the disappointment created by switching to a virtual ceremony. Graduates at institutions across the country are experiencing this disruption, and we wish we could get back to our traditional commencement exercises immediately. However, we have to keep our community members safe, and we are proceeding with that in mind. We want all the graduates and families to know that we will do our best to make this ceremony a joyful and dignified celebration of their achievements, and an occasion worth remembering.”

The virtual ceremony will be held for graduate students Thursday, May 13 at 6:30 p.m. and for undergraduate students Saturday, May 15 at 10 a.m. Further details will follow when the virtual event approaches.