LC announces 2021 commencement will be all virtual due to pandemic

Photo Courtesy of Lewis & Clark

In a Feb. 17 email to graduating seniors, Lewis & Clark announced that the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) commencement will be entirely virtual.

The 148th Annual Commencement will be held on May 8 at 2 p.m. The 2020 commencement was the first in LC history to be a live streamed event, though many previous commencements have been filmed. The law and graduate commencement programs will also likely be virtual.

The Office of the Dean is currently in the process of confirming a virtual commencement speaker. At the February Board of Trustees meeting, an honorary degree was approved for Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield is expected to be the CAS commencement speaker, though the college is still working to finalize an arrangement. A formal announcement will be made at a later date.

According to the email sent to seniors, LC aims for commencement to have “the same celebratory tone as our in-person gatherings” while prioritizing safety. Director of Student Engagement and Special Events Tamara Ko is head of the Commencement Committee and was part of the decision to make the event virtual.

“Presently, there are at least 380 seniors who are slated to graduate and commencement is a time consuming process,” Ko said. “It requires down deposits to be made to plan anything, really. With commencement being on May 8, the likelihood of our governor letting us have a big in-person event in Multnomah County is very slim.”

Ko is working with the rest of the Commencement Committee to coordinate optional, small in-person elements to celebrate graduation, including a photo booth for seniors and their pods.

Despite limitations, the Commencement Committee is also exploring an opportunity to offer an in-person gathering later in the summer.

“As we try to move forward with this option, that might not be the best option — but it’s currently the best in terms of where we are with health measures,” Ko said. “We were also working with Alumni and Parent programs for when we’re able to celebrate again in person, to somehow offer a gathering for seniors.”

Sam Helms-Galbraith ’21 was surprised by the announcement to make commencement virtual and had the idea to write a petition opposing the decision.

“Over four years, you just imagine graduation as a monumental event in your life, it means something,” Helms-Galbraith said. “The decision felt just a little bit premature.”

Helms-Galbraith discussed the idea with Jacob Serafini ’21, who ended up writing the petition. So far, it has garnered 248 signatures and multiple comments of support from seniors. For the organizers, the ultimate goal of the petition is to start a conversation with administrators about the decision to make the ceremony virtual.

“Of course we will not have an in-person graduation ceremony like we have in the past, but it seems egregious to not thoroughly consider safe, in-person options,” the petition reads. “It seems reasonable to keep the virtual option as a back up plan if COVID does get worse, but it in no way should be the leading and sole option three months before graduation is set to occur.”

Ko is aware of the petition and hopes to continue collaborating with seniors to make the best of graduation.

“The seniors want to be able to make their voices heard,” Ko said. “I also want to make sure that it is representative of the seniors, if it is truly signed by seniors only. At the end of the day, I don’t make the final call, but I definitely want to be able to take that input.”

Helms-Galbraith and Serafini report a strong positive reaction to the petition from their fellow seniors. They advocate for a cohorted, socially-distanced commencement ceremony, organized by major or last name. For the two of them, the fact that the college coordinated events such as New Student Orientation, with around 500 students, means that a COVID-19 safe in-person event would be possible.

Seniors must also meet a March 15 deadline to submit photos for commencement, as well as measurements for a custom-fitted cap and gown. Cords and diplomas will be offered as usual. Diplomas can be picked up two weeks after commencement, or they will be sent via mail to the address on file. Friends or family can pick up diplomas with a note from the graduate.

LC also offers formats for students and their families to fill in their personal information to send hometown graduation announcements to their local papers.

Annual Gifting, as part of the Student Philanthropy division, is continuing the senior gift program. Each donation from graduating seniors will be matched with $50, with a minimum donation of $1. Donations can go to the general fund which contributes to scholarships and other forms of student support, or seniors can donate to specific departments, sports or clubs.

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