ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring

In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring

Joy Bullen
Written by Joy Bullen | May 13, 2021
In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring

Jeff Miller/ University of Wisconsin - Madison

If there's one thing the graduating class of 2021 has learned in college, it's that things don't always go as planned. College life looked a lot different than most students imagined it would, when they first got their acceptances to school years ago. For many, the dreams of living, eating, studying, and partying with hundreds or thousands of peers on a pristine campus was replaced by virtual learning, or a new type of campus life defined by masking, social distancing and frequent nose-swabbing. None of these graduates could have imagined the challenges that being a student during a pandemic would pose, but many are arriving at the proverbial finish line this May ready to celebrate and inspired to change the world.

Commencement, like so many other milestones, will look different for this unique class of students. With the United States' full-vaccination rate hovering around 35 percent, college administrators faced difficult decisions about how to celebrate the achievements of this resilient class. Depending on size, location, and facilities available, schools are taking different approaches. Some schools are holding fully-virtual ceremonies, some are limiting in-person events to just graduating students and faculty, and others are allowing family and friends to attend the festivities too. But no matter how or where the ceremony is being held, graduates and speakers are finding creative ways to celebrate their accomplishments and inspire others.

Did you attend a virtual or in-person commencement ceremony this year? Have something to add? Create a new thread or join the conversation in the College Confidential forums.

NYU and Columbia Chose Virtual Commencement Ceremonies

In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring - 0

Columbia University Created a virtual graduation kit to help students celebrate virtually

New York City started out as the epicenter of America's COVID-19 outbreak in March 2020, and more than a year after the city that never sleeps came to a complete halt, three of NYC's most renowned universities have chosen fully-virtual commencements. Despite governor Andrew Cuomo's announcement that in-person graduations could start May 1st, New York University will hold their May 19th commencement ceremony completely online. NYU did promise graduates that there would be an in-person ceremony when health guidelines indict it is safe to gather larger groups. Fordham University will hold a virtual commencement a few days later, on May 22.

Despite some members of the Columbia University community urged the school to consider an in-person event, but the administration held fast to its decision to hold a mostly virtual commencement on April 30th. In an interview about the decision with Columbia News, Donna Lynne, senior vice president and chief operating officer of Columbia University Irving Medical Center and the University COVID Director, explained the decision. Lynne said, "As one of the largest institutions in New York City, we think it is prudent to take all reasonable steps to avoid exacerbating an already tenuous situation...As students are all too aware, 95 percent of our classes are remote and only a small number of students are present on campus. But we have every expectation that we will be able to restore normal campus life in the fall."

Columbia created a "virtual graduation kit" for students and families, complete with zoom backgrounds, printable photo booth props, giphys to use on social media. Students, friends, and family were encouraged to post photos using the hashtag #RoarLions2021. In his virtual commencement address, Colombia's president, Lee Bollinger, spoke to the unique challenges that the class of 2021 faced. Bollinger said, "There is no getting around the fact that this has been an astoundingly difficult period in which to be a student, and you have suffered. Yet, it is also true that you have endured and responded to these challenges. Much of life is anticipating and preparing for adversity. Often we have only a vague sense of what it might be like. To have struggled through, and ultimately overcome adversity on this scale is, in a way, an educational miracle." Despite the ceremony being virtual, many graduates donned their Columbia blue caps and gowns, and snapped photos of themselves around campus, posing with cardboard cutouts of key campus figures along the way.

UW - Madison Held a “Jubilant” In-Person Celebration for Students, Faculty and Staff

In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring - 1

UW - Madison students got creative decorating their mortar boards for a graduate and faculty-only commencement

Other schools, like University of Wisconsin - Madison, decided to hold an in-person ceremony for graduates, faculty and staff only. Family and friends could view the proceedings via a recorded livestream. There were 5100 people in attendance at the undergraduate ceremony at Camp Randall, the school's football stadium. All attendees had to follow distancing and masking guidelines, and needed to have received a vaccine or negative COVID test before the event. The weather was crisp and sunny, and the mood was boisterous and "jubilant," as graduates gathered to celebrate earning their degrees. The keynote speaker, UW alum and Broadway star, André De Shields, ended his video address by serenading the class of 2021 with a rousing rendition of Queen's "We Are The Champions," substituting "You" for "We."

Many Badgers, as UW students and alum call themselves, decorated their mortar board caps in a show of creativity and humor, or to send messages to loved ones who couldn't be there in person. One graduate, Natalie Hameister, a psychology and social welfare double-major from Brookfield, Wisconsin, wore a cap decorated with the "Leave meeting" Zoom icon, and an imaginary cursor hovering over "Join the real world."

"The energy here today - you can't get that on a screen," Hameister told a UW New Reporter. It might not do justice to the excitement of the day, but live footage of commencement can be found here.

University of Nebraska - Lincoln Held Three Separate Ceremonies for Graduates and Their Guests

In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring - 2

Chancellor Ronnie Green welcomes graduates and their guests to the morning undergraduate commencement ceremony May 8 at Memorial Stadium. The university conferred a record 3,594 degrees during commencement exercises May 7 and 8.

In an attempt to allow for more social distancing, University of Nebraska - Lincoln held two separate in-person ceremonies for undergraduates, and two additional commencement ceremonies for graduate students. Each graduate in attendance was required to show proof of a negative COVID test, regardless of their vaccine status, and was able to invite up to eight guests to attend the ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. Both ceremonies featured a commencement address by former football coach and politician Tom Osborne, titled "Begin With the End in Mind." The ceremonies culminated in fireworks being shot off in the shape of two N's at the front of the stadium. Get a sneak peek of the day (including the fireworks) here, or flip through the personalized slides featuring graduates.

Brown University’s Hybrid Festivities Included an Inspiring Call-to-Action for Graduates

In-Person or Online, Class of 2021 Commencements Are Joyful and Inspiring - 3 2021 Senior Orator George Kubai: “Dare to Dream”

Brown University celebrated commencement with a hybrid of in-person and virtual events. Graduates could choose to attend one of two in-person ceremonies for undergraduates, and friends and family could watch the ceremonies and other speakers and events via webcast.

For some members of the class of 2021, the last year and half of their college experience may have seemed more like a nightmare than a dream. In a moving commencement address delivered in front of his classmates and Brown faculty, student speaker George Kubai challenged to dare to dream bigger. After telling his story of how he arrived at Brown after immigrating to the United States as a young boy, he said, "I want to encourage people to dream bigger than themselves, to dream of removing barriers that stand in people's way...We celebrate when people overcome these barriers, but let's go to the next step and make a world where those barriers don't exist...So I'll leave you with a question, 2021: What will the world look like because you have chosen to dream?Kubai's words seemed to resonate with graduates, many of whom reposted Kubai's challenge on their social media. The class of 2021 has risen to the challenge of graduating college during a pandemic, but now they face the difficult task reimagining the future in a world that feels more uncertain than ever.

Did you attend a virtual or in-person commencement ceremony this year? Have something to add? Create a new thread or join the conversation in the College Confidential forums.

Written by

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen

Joy Bullen is College Confidential's Senior Editor and Head of Content. She is a graduate of Kenyon College, where she majored in English and Creative Writing. She also earned a master’s in Psychology from The New School for Social Research in NYC.

Before becoming a full-time writer and editor, Joy coached thousands of prospective and enrolled college students on admissions and academic and career success. She also managed a team of academic and career coaches and consulted with universities on how to create programs that have better outcomes for students.

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship