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Grad walks, stage moments, no guests. Graduation 2021 is definitely not cutting it for many

 Cal State LA student wearing a graduation sash poses for photo
Photographer Jesse Ramirez, left, takes a photo of graduating student Kimberly Tsu at Cal State L.A.
(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It all seemed so promising a month ago when Cal State L.A. announced its plans for graduation. An event at the landmark Rose Bowl, not only for the class of 2021, but also the forgotten class of 2020. Speeches. Music. Congratulations galore from family and friends. Maybe even some jumbotron action.

But this week, Cal State L.A. made clear what was actually in store for the Rose Bowl ceremony: No guests. No names read aloud. No walk across the stage.

So much outrage erupted that in an abrupt about-face, university officials canceled the Rose Bowl graduation altogether — and is reverting to a virtual event, with plans for an in-person ceremony at a future date with “elements that graduates treasure.”

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“WHAT is the point of attending the commencement if NOTHING will be done there??” a parent asked on Twitter. “SO disappointed.”

“After all the sleepless nights, hard work, and loads of tuition, this is what we get?” an entry on the Cal State L.A. Facebook page said. “They shouldn’t have said they were going to have one and then change their mind this makes us feel even worse!”

A year after graduating into a pandemic, my son was reluctant to attend his ‘make-up’ college graduation ceremony. In the end, it was amazing.

The tumult at Cal State LA reflects the last-minute scramble among many universities in California that are trying to balance safety against widespread complaints and disappointment — while offering students some semblance of a real ceremony after last year’s graduates sadly culminated their college years on Zoom. Adding pressure on university officials is that their early plans have been upended this week by good news: L.A. County and broad swaths of the state are beginning to reopen widely.

“Planning for a large-scale event during the COVID-19 pandemic has presented many challenges,” Cal State L.A. said in a statement Thursday. “Our goal has always been to provide our students with the best commencement ceremony possible, given public health protocols and the need to keep everyone safe.”

Other universities are also facing backlash over their plans.

Caltech, with about 240 graduating seniors, originally said it would hold an entirely virtual ceremony, prompting a student petition demanding an in-person commencement. Finally, last week Caltech announced students could gather on the campus athletic field for a screening of the virtual ceremony. Not good enough, students are saying.

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Across the UC system, campuses are introducing a new lexicon to commencement events, with many offering students a solitary “grad walk” or a “stage moment” with no handshake, diploma or broad applause.

Originally, both UCLA and UC Irvine said their events would host only graduates, no guests — a flash point for students and parents.

“The whole point of graduation is for my family to be there,” said Queenie Ruan, a UC Irvine student from San Francisco who will be the first in her family to graduate from college. “Just finishing, walking on the stage, being able to thank my mom in that moment and say, ‘Hey, look, I did this because of your support all these years.’”

UCI shifted plans last week and announced it would allow students to bring two guests. Then, late Wednesday, the university told students they would be able to sign up for 15-minute slots for their stage moment during the week of June 13-17, prompting consternation that students would have to compete for a coveted Sunday window.

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Emily Vu said she was “super stoked” that guests would be allowed, but the ceremony details were underwhelming. Graduates will enter an indoor campus arena to the recorded music of “Pomp and Circumstance,” cross the stage, have their name announced and be photographed, while their guests stand and watch. Thirty minutes from start to finish. No balloons or gifts will be allowed inside.

“I’m really bummed that there’s no more school spirit,” Vu said. “Everybody’s parting ways and it kind of sucks.”

UCLA’s plans were in flux through the week. At first the university offered students a stage moment without guests — but few other details.

“It’s chaos,” said Jill Spector, a UCLA parent. “And the fact that it’s less than six weeks away is ... so disrespectful to these kids and these families that have worked really hard this past year.”

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Her daughter Rebekah was more resigned. “It’s disappointing, but this whole year has been disappointing,” she said.

But UCLA changed course Friday and announced that its graduates, too, could bring two guests to an outdoor procession and “individual recognition events” at Drake Stadium on campus. Beginning May 25, students will be able to register for time slots during ceremonies scheduled every day between June 10-15.

“While the current realities of the pandemic limit our ability to fully commemorate the accomplishments of our UCLA graduates, we hope that the inclusion of guests ... will help us honor our students while also acknowledging the families, friends and partners who do so much to support our graduating Bruins,” Monroe Gorden Jr., vice chancellor for student affairs, said in a campus-wide message.

In March, the California Department of Public Health issued guidance allowing for in-person commencement ceremonies outside. According to new county public health protocols that took effect Thursday, attendance at outdoor seated live events could be up to 67% of capacity.

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Cal State L.A. said that despite the relaxed guidelines, the Rose Bowl’s own stricter protocols — including a requirement that each graduate be seated inside a six-foot radius — would not allow for the accommodation of graduates and guests.

Many students had already ordered caps and gowns, made travel plans and had family members arrange to take the day off. Among hundreds of responses to the university’s Instagram post, one student wrote that her mother was scheduled to fly in from Nicaragua for the event.

As the pandemic eases, USC said Thursday that it would be able to hold in-person commencement ceremonies this spring, allowing students to celebrate this rite of passage in classic fashion.

“Now she is coming for nothing,” the student wrote. “It’s not like I had the money sitting on my bank account.”

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Diana Chavez, Cal State L.A.’s student body president, said the reversal is doubly upsetting because her sister, who graduated last year, got only a virtual commencement and their Mexican immigrant parents had hoped both would have an in-person ceremony next month.

“Graduation is a cultural rite of passage for so many of us,” said Chavez, a political science major. “It closes the book on all of the challenges we went through.”

Nayla Abney has started a petition asking Caltech to host an in-person commencement ceremony for her class of 2021
Caltech senior Nayla Abney has started a petition asking Caltech to host an in-person commencement ceremony for her class of 2021.
(Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times)

Nayla Abney, the Caltech student who led the petition drive, is the only Black woman in her class, and will begin a doctoral program in bioengineering at Stanford this fall. She said her achievements show “that you’re able to go to Caltech even as a minority and succeed. Now ... I’m not able to get a graduation. It feels like a slap in the face.”

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Abney’s mother, Radiah, said she and other parents were willing to forgo being present if it meant their children could have a more normal experience. “It would just mean everything ... to see her have this ceremony,” she said.

Shayna Chabner, chief communications officer at Caltech, said in an email that a virtual ceremony in June and in-person event in the fall would allow for “timely and equitable” celebrations for the university’s international community — and the new plans allow for a safe yet celebratory event.

“Our intent is not to replicate a graduation ceremony but to provide an additive, celebratory experience that safely brings the graduates together on Caltech’s campus,” she said.

At the other end of the spectrum USC, Cal State Long Beach and UC San Diego will offer in-person events more closely resembling traditional graduations, albeit with some social distancing, masking, and vaccine or testing requirements in place.

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USC, one of the first local universities to announce an in-person graduation with guests, booked the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to accommodate everyone safely.

The campus plans twice-daily ceremonies over seven days beginning May 14 with 1,500 students and 3,000 guests at each — and President Carol Folt intends to deliver in-person remarks at all of them. The commencement address by the Boston Globe’s editorial page editor and performance by the Trojan Marching Band will be taped. Guests in the 77,500-seat stadium will see close-ups of the graduates on a giant LED screen.

Similarly, Cal State Long Beach will host ceremonies at Anaheim’s Angel Stadium over several days at the end of May, with processions and speeches inside and “microstages” throughout the parking lot where students can hear their names read and see their customized graduation slides displayed.

UC San Diego, lone among the UCs in the extent of its in-person ceremony planning, will award approximately 8,000 degrees at two outdoor locations on campus, with pre-recorded speeches and performances. Students will get two guests each. They will be escorted directly to their seats upon arrival, have their names read, cross a stage and be given a photo opportunity — but no scroll or shaking of hands.

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Times staff writer Teresa Watanabe contributed to this story.

Updates

6:21 PM, May. 07, 2021: This story was updated to include new details of UCLA’s commencement policy on guests.


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