USC’s first-ever online graduation: Surreal pomp, unprecedented circumstances

Virtual graduation
Maria Del Pilar Morales, center, a member of the USC Class of 2020, attends her virtual graduation via Zoom from her home in Orange. With her are, from left, her brother Manny Morales; her mother, Pilar Morales; and stepdad Victor Ramos.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Maria Del Pilar Morales, a member of the USC class of 2020, wore a cardinal-and-gold graduation sash but no cap and gown. She gathered with her family to receive her undergraduate degree in global health, but not on campus.

When USC President Carol Folt conferred more than 19,000 degrees Friday morning, Morales was sitting on the couch in her Orange home, watching a virtual ceremony on her TV screen. She could not throw her black mortarboard high into the air at the culmination of a colorful campus ceremony featuring a regal procession, a confetti cannon and the release of doves. Instead, Morales and graduates throughout the country are celebrating this major milestone with surreal pomp amid unprecedented circumstances.

It wasn’t what she imagined graduation day would be like — but she was grateful for the efforts.


“It’s just the feeling of wanting something in person and dreaming of throwing your cap in the air.... I didn’t know if that would translate well into a virtual platform,” Morales said. “For the most part, I really appreciated everything that they did.... USC has just really shown that they care about the graduates.”

Mid-May marks the beginning of what will go down as a history-making commencement season, as the COVID-19 crisis has forced universities throughout the country to postpone the grandeur of traditional ceremonies and instead attempt small-screen celebrations.

USC was one of the first universities in California to roll out a virtual graduation, marking efforts to give graduates some sense of accomplishment and joy amid the disappointment of a canceled mega-event on a packed campus. Facebook and Instagram hosted a star-studded national celebration Friday featuring Oprah Winfrey, while former President Barack Obama will speak to high school graduates Saturday in a virtual event sponsored by the XQ Institute, the LeBron James Family Foundation and the Entertainment Industry Foundation.

Like USC, most University of California and California State University campuses have announced plans to delay commencement ceremonies until it is safe to gather in person.

On Saturday, the date planned for commencement before the pandemic hit, UC Berkeley will host a simulated mock ceremony in a virtual California Memorial Stadium built by students using the Minecraft video game. The ceremony will feature a greeting from Chancellor Carol Christ, the playing of “Hail to California,” flying mortarboards and the unofficial conferring of degrees. A formal in-person ceremony will be held later.

USC however, planned an official degree conferral. President Carol Folt, wearing a ceremonial cardinal robe and her gold presidential medallion, greeted online viewers from around the world as her mask-wearing staff looked on. She spoke from her campus office, alluding to the letdown and assuring graduates that USC would hold a real commencement as soon as it is safe to do so.


“This is a ceremony for the record books, and you’re lucky you’ll get a second ceremony, I promise, in person,” Folt said. “Like all of you, I imagined we’d be under a blue sky this morning, strolling the well-traveled paths across campus. The picture today is quite different, but the important thing is, whether in person or virtually, we’re coming together to celebrate.”

USC’s main celebration kicked off at 9 a.m., simulcast in Mandarin and Spanish, and was to continue throughout the day with 34 other celebrations held by 23 schools and units. The 45-minute main ceremony featured a surprise guest — actor and alumnus Will Ferrell, who told graduates to “hug your neighbors, your family and friends while still staying six feet apart if you can.”

The celebrated Trojan Marching Band played the classic school songs “Fight On” and “Conquest” in a performance stitched together with individual members playing tubas, trombones, percussion, flute and other instruments. The website featured social media congratulatory posts, recorded messages from notable alumni and a live comment board. Each of the 23 schools had separate pages with social media streams to give graduates an intimate sense of graduating with their academic family.

Other creative touches: a “celebration” button that, when clicked, would release confetti in cardinal and gold; a virtual memory book that will be delivered to each graduate; and augmented reality filters that allowed graduates to take selfies, seemingly wearing graduation caps while posing in front of Tommy Trojan, Doheny Library and other campus landmarks.

Hundreds of USC staff pulled off the complex virtual celebration after just three weeks of planning. Their decisions were guided by a survey that found that the overwhelming majority of 14,000 students polled wanted to keep an in-person commencement and would return to campus in the fall, or even next spring, to attend.

“They were clear that nothing is replacing the experience and emotion behind the commencement in person,” said Adam Rosen, a USC associate vice president who oversees university events. “We don’t want to take away anything with a virtual ceremony.”

The team scrambled to secure closed-captioning for 41 ceremonies in order to comply with federal disability rights laws. They set up password-protected access to avoid nasty Zoom bombs, which marred Oklahoma City University’s recent celebration. They obtained special broadcasting licenses for the marching band’s music. And they arranged for live Mandarin-language translation since viewers in China would not be able to access a recording on YouTube.

Morales said the efforts underscored the support she has received during her years at USC. Although she entered the university with a 4.9 GPA from high school, she said she floundered badly in her first semester, struggling with the academic rigor, unfamiliarity with campus resources and feelings of being an “imposter” as a first-generation student.

But she soon found mentors through the Latino Alumni Association. A tenor sax player, she joined the marching band. She started a support group for Latino students interested in medicine. She became involved with an environmental justice group, helping to lobby for an end to urban oil drilling in South Los Angeles. And she networked with supporters of the Norman Topping Student Aid Fund, which awarded scholarships to her and other high-achieving, low-income students.

On Friday, Morales celebrated with her mother, stepfather and brother in their Orange home — and shared the moment with family and friends in Mexico City, Los Angeles, Riverside and Garden Grove. They made congratulatory signs with hearts and displayed balloons decorated with pandas, Morales’ favorite animal. Her uncle Juan Lerma called her a hero and a role model.

“May God bless you, hija,” her 95-year-old great-grandmother, Guadalupe Contreras, told her.

They broke out in smiles and applause when Folt conferred the degrees and declared, “Congratulations, graduates! You are officially USC alumni.”

“I was almost tearing up,” Morales said. “It was really cool to be able to share the experience.”

One family member was particularly close to her heart this day: Her father, who died from H1N1 flu when she was 12. Like her mother, her father pushed her to go to college, and his illness inspired her to enter the healthcare field.

“I wanted to fulfill that dream that my father had for us to go to college,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s an achievement for me to be able to have a diploma, but it’s all for my family.”