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USC to hold in-person graduations this spring for classes of 2020 and 2021

Maria Morales' virtual graduation via Zoom with her family.
Maria Morales, a member of the USC Class of 2020, watches a laptop during her virtual graduation with her family.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

As the pandemic eases, USC announced Thursday it would hold in-person commencement ceremonies this spring for the classes of 2020 and 2021, allowing students to celebrate this joyful rite-of-passage in classic fashion.

Students, outfitted in caps and gowns, will march across the stage at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, hear their names read, receive their diplomas and have their photos taken while projected on the screens at the stadium. Plans were in the works to bring in other signature elements of the traditional Trojan ceremony: the marching band, release of doves and a colorful cloud of confetti shot by cannon.

“After all this time, we will finally be together again,” USC President Carol L. Folt tweeted in announcing the news.

The news quickly drew elated responses on social media: heart emojis, tears of joy and excited posts: “THIS NEWS JUST MADE MY WHOLE DAY!!” and “WE GOING UP!”

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Some students, however, reacted more cautiously. Charlie Goldstein, a senior in business administration, said he and his friends were “pleasantly surprised” when they heard the news but are tamping down any excitement in case the pandemic flares up again and quashes plans for an in-person commencement. Getting through the past year of virtual classes and a shuttered campus has been tough, he said, and his motto now is “Zero Expectations.”

“If it works out, my parents will be so excited because it’s a huge deal and a milestone in your life,” Goldstein said. “But I’m not going to be excited until the actual graduation when I’m with my family and everybody.”

USC is among the first California universities to announce in-person ceremonies this spring. Six of the nine University of California undergraduate campuses have made plans for virtual commencements, with decisions still pending at UCLA, UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara.

California State University’s 23 campuses are posting varied plans. Long Beach announced it has applied to local health authorities for permission to hold a “vehicle commencement” with graduates driving across an outdoor platform to receive their diplomas and congratulations from a party of campus leaders. Most of the Claremont Colleges also have announced virtual events.

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Folt said state authorities had granted permission for USC’s in-person event — but the campus would make some changes to comply with state restrictions on density and cleaning. The ceremonies will be stretched out over nearly two weeks, occurring twice a day from May 14 to May 25. And students will be allowed to bring only two guests each; at the moment, they must be California residents, but Folt said the university is working with state officials to see if there was a way to allow out-of-state guests.

The cancellation of in-person commencement ceremonies at most universities last year devastated students, who felt robbed of the joyous capstone to their college journeys. College officials — and celebrities including Oprah Winfrey and President Obama — tried to ease the disappointment with online and often elaborately staged events.

At USC, for instance, hundreds of staff pulled off a complex virtual celebration after just three weeks of planning. They built a website featuring social media congratulatory posts, recorded messages from notable alumni and a live comment board. Each of the 23 schools had pages with social media streams to give students an intimate sense of graduating with their academic family.

Other creative touches included 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.

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Folt said USC was building a new digital platform to enhance this year’s virtual experience for those who cannot make the in-person event, which will be also broadcast online, live and on-demand for future viewing. Every school will host a virtual celebration for its graduates on May 13.

Further details will be posted on the university’s commencement website.

“Commencement is one of the most cherished ceremonies in a student’s academic life,” Folt wrote. “Please know that we are doing everything possible to produce an experience that balances both the challenges brought on by the pandemic, as well as the achievements of our incredible graduates.”

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