Eduvation Blog

COVID Convocations

It seems clear that social distancing orders and public assembly bans will force all North American institutions to cancel, or at least postpone, spring and early summer graduation ceremonies this year. All institutions have indicated that students will graduate on schedule, in absentia, and will receive their diplomas by mail. Most have also suggested that graduates will be welcome to participate belatedly in a convocation ceremony this Fall, or once the ban has been lifted. Some have optimistically announced a new date for the postponed ceremony, in October or November.

Read our COVID & Convocations white paper (PDF)

(Read this blog as a white paper instead)

Regretful Announcements

At most institutions, the reluctance to cancel convocation was palpable. In many cases, the decision was reached weeks after bans on all other non-essential gatherings. The news was delivered directly by the president, in thoughtful letters or video messages, with far more regret than accompanied most other pandemic announcements:

“I know that the opportunity to celebrate your success in the company of friends and family is enormously important for all students, especially at this university where our sense of community is so strong and so integral to the whole Queen’s experience… Receiving your degree is one of life’s milestones. Right now, perhaps more than ever, we are all acutely aware of just how precious such moments are.”

Patrick Deane, Principal & Vice-Chancellor, Queen’s University


“We realize this will come as an enormous disappointment to our graduating students, especially after you have persevered these last few weeks to complete your studies in the face of such extraordinary challenges. You have worked hard, made countless sacrifices, and learned so much during your time at Western — achievements that deserve to be celebrated in accordance with your alma mater’s longstanding traditions. We are deeply sorry that we cannot mark this important milestone in your life the way we want to at this time.”

Alan Shepard, President & Vice-Chancellor, Western University


“Convocation is a special time when the Trent community joins together to celebrate the achievements of our graduates and welcome them to our global family of alumni… I want to reiterate that we are eager to celebrate your graduation from Trent University and are looking at alternatives. We are all very disappointed that important events cannot proceed at the moment, but the health and safety of our campus communities and families is our primary concern… We do want you to know that we are deeply committed to celebrating your achievements.”

Leo Groarke, President & Vice-Chancellor, Trent University


“It was a very difficult decision to make, but as the current public health crisis continues to evolve and government further tightens social/physical distancing measures, it was unavoidable. Let me reiterate that this is a postponement and not a cancellation. Our amazing 5,000+ graduating students will get to experience the power and meaning of Convocation, and the well-deserved opportunity to walk across the stage and to be recognized for their hard work.”

Benoit-Antoine Bacon, President & Vice-Chancellor, Carleton University


Clearly cancelling convocation has an impact on student morale, alumni engagement, and potentially class gifts and advancement efforts. So it is hardly surprising that institutions are getting creative at designing alternative models for events that can observe social distancing requirements.


Social Distance

For instance, Maine’s Kennebec Valley Community College is reportedly holding their graduation ceremony in a drive-in movie theatre, with faculty and staff lining the streets in their cars.

Some US high school graduations were particularly creative this spring. One Florida prep school handed out diplomas to graduating seniors riding jet skis. High school graduates near Daytona International Speedway got to drive a lap with their families, and cross the finish line as their names were announced. New Hampshire grads got to ride a mountain chairlift for a high-altitude ceremony. And a Texas high school used a supersized football stadium, which they could occupy at just 25% capacity. Edu Dive

Even under normal circumstances, students share millions of graduation photos and video clips on social media, often with institution-specific hashtags. This year, some event organizers are holding awards celebrations exclusively on social media. Brock University’s Badger Athletics held their annual awards gala on Instagram Live.

The media relations and social media manager at Brigham Young University shares that they will be curating user-generated content on social using the hashtag #BYUGrad, providing Zoom backgrounds of BYU convocations, sharing feature stories, encouraging grads to takeover social channels, creating a presidential address video, collecting scores of 14-second video clips from faculty, and encouraging grads to use a “then vs now” photo frame for Instagram stories.

Humber College launched its virtual grad celebration yesterday, including video greetings, a poem for grads, alumni shout-outs, and musical performances. The website includes a grad list, social media links, “words of wisdom,” and a Grad Shop with diploma frames, class rings, and gift combos. Oh, and a collection of “digital swag” including giphy stickers, frames, banners and stories for Instagram, TikTok, Facebook and more. Humber

Others are compiling webpages of graduate profiles, or to replace graduate art shows. Marketing departments are compiling clips from graduates into class recognition videos. A social media coordinator at the University of Utah’s Quinney College of Law is heading out with a telephoto lens to capture “front porch graduation photos,” or what the cool kids are starting to call “porch-ritz.”

Since institutions are mailing diplomas to their graduates anyway, some are creating “care packages” to make an even bigger impact. Some are including class rings or branded alumni swag, and hashtags to encourage “unboxing” videos on social media.  Johns Hopkins is sending lawn signs and flowers to senior athletes. Buffalo State College is reportedly considering shipping champagne flutes to students for a virtual toast. This June, uLethbridge will ship graduates their parchment, a cap and tassel, a commemorative program, alumni pin, Indigenous stole if requested, and honour cords for those graduating with distinction. Students are encouraged to post photos to social media with the hashtag #uleth2020 (and to attend a convocation ceremony sometime in the next 3 years).


Video & Virtual

Students are performing plays and musicals remotely using Zoom. Some institutions are experimenting with livestreaming video events, allowing graduates to participate from home using Zoom for a virtual ceremony.

Usually, the ideas that will resonate most with students are the ones that they develop spontaneously on their own. It’s an old adage that you put walkways across the quad where students have already worn paths, not where the administration wants them to walk. So while it may be a less reverent setting than many academics would wish, perhaps massive multiplayer online role-playing game worlds are worth considering.

Last month, University of Pennsylvania students created a virtual campus inside the gameworld of Minecraft, so that graduates could still ceremonially walk down Locust Street to celebrate their graduation. Thousands of students from institutions across the US are recreating campuses in Minecraft, or have expressed an interest in graduating in a communal ceremony there, at a fictional “Quarantine University.” The gameworld will allow students to invite their families, visit with classmates, and add spontaneous fireworks to celebrate.

In a similar vein, a small group of high school seniors has launched Nexus, a cross-platform app to host virtual graduations and year-end celebrations in immersive 3D, incorporating customizable avatars and realistic campus simulations based on Google Maps. “Designed by students, for students,” the multiplayer immersive platform improves on the experience of web conferencing with Unity3D’s rendering engine, spatial realtime audio, and administrator security. All profits go to COVID19 research.Nexus



Probably one of the least practical approaches, although nonetheless thought-provoking, comes from Tokyo’s Business Breakthrough University. They recently used telepresence robots to allow four graduates to “walk” across the stage remotely, their faces displayed on tablets on robots wearing graduation gowns and mortarboards. The fact that university officials still had to be present physically, means that this may not be a workable approach until after the pandemic lockdown is lifted.


Have you seen other interesting approaches to mounting a virtual convocation in the time of COVID-19? Please share them in the comments below!


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