Virtual ceremonies, care packages & online yearbooks: O.C. colleges find creative ways to toast Class of 2020

The 24 students in Vanguard University's nursing pre-licensure program, which started in 2018, will be the very first graduating class. Andrew Bailey, in the back under the Exit sign, says graduating without a physical commencement ceremony is bittersweet.
(Courtesy of Vanguard University)

Vanguard University has offered degrees for licensed and registered nurses since 2006. But in 2018, it started its first pre-licensure program, which prepares undergraduate students to take the exam to become licensed nurses upon graduation.

The students of the Class of 2020 are the first graduates of that program. But like all other graduates in the nation, they won’t have a physical commencement ceremony at this time.

Vanguard President Michael Beals said that the school took a survey, and seniors responded that they didn’t want to do a virtual commencement. The in-person ceremony, initially scheduled for May 7, will be postponed to a later, undetermined date.

In the meantime, the Costa Mesa-based university had a celebratory Zoom event for seniors, and Beals sent handwritten notes to the more than 500 graduates.

Andrew Bailey, one of the 24 graduates from the nursing pre-licensure program, said many of his fellow students are feeling anxiety about their schooling coming to an end amid the pandemic.

After taking their licensing exams this summer, these nurses will be thrust into hospitals dealing with COVID-19 patients.

“It’s totally unprecedented being in nursing school and graduating, and a global pandemic hits,” Bailey said. “Within our group, people are having anxiety just in the finality. We are such a tight-knit group.”

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He said it’s bittersweet that he can’t celebrate with his family, alongside his classmates.

“We know we are doing the right thing in staying home, but it’s hard because it’s something so huge in our lives,” Bailey said. “That sense of completion isn’t there right now.”

Past graduates toss their caps in the air. This year, many graduation ceremonies are either postponed or will be done virtually.
(File Photo)

How can colleges best help their graduating students celebrate this important milestone in their lives?

This is a question that Vanguard, and many colleges across the world, are asking, as it became clear that it wouldn’t be safe to have large gatherings — or to ask family members to travel — during May and June.

Soka University in Aliso Viejo and Fullerton College also polled their students and found that they weren’t interested in a virtual commencement ceremony.

In an email to students last week, Soka University’s Dean of Students Hyon J. Moon announced that the university will gift each graduating student a cap, gown and stole that will be mailed to them, instead. They will also launch a page on their the university’s website where any community members, including their alumni, can send a video, picture and message to congratulate the Class of 2020.

Fullerton College graduates voted against having a virtual commencement ceremony, but they will all receiving care packages with the caps and gowns, tassels, diploma covers, license plate frames and water bottles they would have received had they not graduated in the midst of a pandemic.
Fullerton College graduates voted against having a virtual commencement ceremony, but they will all receiving care packages with the caps and gowns, tassels, diploma covers, license plate frames and water bottles they would have received had they not graduated in the midst of a pandemic.
(Courtesy of Fullerton College)

A team at Fullerton College will be putting together 800 care packages for graduating students, 600 of which will be mailed and 200 will be available at a drive-thru pick-up. They will include caps and gowns, tassels, diploma covers, license plate frames, water bottles — what the graduates would have gotten if they had a ceremony, which will now likely be postponed until next year.

Fullerton College will also launch a special commencement website on May 22 with photos and video to honor the graduates, including a video that features their 70-student choir.

North Orange Continuing Education, another campus in the North Orange County Community College District, will also be mailing their graduates a celebration kit in lieu of a virtual ceremony. Graduates will also be invited to return and participate in the 2021 graduate ceremony.

And Cal State Fullerton, which has also delayed their in-person graduation to a later date, is creating a digital yearbook titled “Virtual Commencement Celebration.”

Through May 22, the graduating class can fill out their personalized pages, customizing their own interactive slides with photos and a favorite quote.

The plan is to publish the digital yearbook in June.

The Show Must Go Online

Many are going ahead with their graduations as planned, but virtually.

Willie Banks, UC Irvine vice chancellor for student affairs, said the school will hold a virtual commencement on June 13 for which 7,400 students have already registered to attend.

The commencement ceremony was recorded in a room at the Bren Center on the UCI campus last week. While maintaining social distancing and wearing masks, Bank and other administrators spoke at a podium dressed in their graduation regalia as though it were a traditional commencement ceremony.

Willie Banks, UC Irvine vice chancellor for student affairs, taped his commencement address in the Koll Room in UCI's Bren Events Center last week. UCI's virtual commencement will take place on June 13.
Willie Banks, UC Irvine vice chancellor for student affairs, taped his commencement address in the Koll Room in UCI’s Bren Events Center last week. UCI’s virtual commencement will take place on June 13.
(Courtesy of Steve Zylius )

The video will be shown during the virtual event, then students will be split into their different schools and disciplines, where their names will be called. Students have the chance to submit a photo or video to be displayed on the screen when their name is called.

Students will also receive a box with a diploma, tassel and other graduation-related materials prior to the event.

“This cannot make up for an in-person ceremony, but it’s the best in this environment right now,” Banks said.

He said the school is planning to hold an in-person graduation for December, though that’s dependent on state health orders and the condition of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cypress College will hold their virtual commencement ceremony on May 22 at 5 p.m, at the same time they had previously planned. It will be streamed from their website.

The processional will include a 2019-20 highlight video, a roll call of graduates, as well as a video of their 2020 Outstanding Graduate Elise Cunanan and their 2020 Presidential Scholars of Distinction. President JoAnna Schilling, Chancellor Cheryl Marshall, Academic Senate President Craig Goralski, Associated Students President Presten Jimenez and Student Trustee Ester Plavdjian will give remarks.

Elise Cunanan is a second-generation graduate of Cypress College who is transferring to Cal State Fullerton. Chosen as the school's 2020 Outstanding Graduate, she recently filmed an "In Her Own Words" video that will be broadcast during their virtual commencement ceremony on May 22.
(Courtesy of Cypress College)

“Earlier this semester, we discussed a number of options for commencement and ultimately decided that it is important to celebrate on the day and time that we had originally planned,” said Marc S. Posner, director of campus communications at Cypress. “We believe this is our best way to celebrate and honor our graduates and their achievements.”

Coast Community College District’s three schools — Coastline College, Golden West College and Orange Coast College — usually hold their graduation ceremonies at the end of May. Those will be canceled, but the Class of 2020 will have the virtual ceremonies, as well as the option of walking on stage next year with the Class of 2021.

“You will face many choices in the days ahead,” said John Chancellor Weispfenning in a video message to the graduates. “Plans made months ago may not be your best option in this new world of ours. Know, without doubt, that your college and the Coast district are there, mentoring as needed, continuing your education as needed, and always cheering you on.”

Coastline graduates can submit a photo or video and quote to be shown while their name is read during a livestream ceremony on May 29. The video will be featured on the college website and social media platforms. Student participants will receive a care package with a commemorative tassel and stole.

Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Laguna) is scheduled to give a speech.

Harley Rouda
U.S. Rep. Harley Roudais is scheduled to give a speech to the Class of 2020 during the Coast Community College virtual commencement ceremony which will be livestreamed on May 29.
(Barbara Davidson / Getty Images)

Orange Coast is holding their online ceremony on June 6. The ceremony will be live and includes presentations from the college’s president, faculty and a few surprise guests.

Students, who will also receive care packages, can upload a photo and personal message that will be added to a commencement video. The college is encouraging students and their families to host shared watch parties and connect through social media using the hashtag #coastgrad.

“We recognize the impact that this change has on our students who have worked hard to achieve their educational goals and the meaningful experience that walking across the stage has for students and their families,” said Angelica Suarez, OCC president, in a letter to students. “Our commitment is to make the celebration for the Class of 2020 a momentous occasion for our graduates and their families.”

Golden West’s virtual celebration will premiere on June 12 on YouTube Premium. Graduates can submit 12-second videos or photos with access to a free SnapChat filter with a virtual cap and gown.

The South Orange County Community College Districts two schools — Irvine Valley College and Saddleback College are also holding virtual ceremonies.

Irvine Valley’s ceremony will premiere on May 28 at 10 a.m. with remarks from OC Human Relations chief executive officer Alison Edwards, Associated Students president Feras Khatib and college staff. Each graduate who decides to participate will be recognized with a slide of their name, photo, degree and a 150-word personal message.

Saddleback is hosting their ceremony on June 12 with an opportunity to participate in next year’s in-person graduation. They’re also collecting videos from students as well as family, friends and faculty for a montage.

And Chapman University officials are honoring seniors on May 22 through a Facebook live toast.

It’s the same day as they had planned to have the original ceremony. Although faculty, graduates and special guests will be making an appearance, the Facebook event is not meant to replace the commencement, which they are still hoping to schedule for a later date.

“Following the all-university livestream, many schools and colleges are holding virtual events for their graduates,” said Jamie S. Ceman, vice president of strategic marketing and communications at Chapman.

“To experience a pandemic when they are about to graduate — that’s very hard for any students today,” said Mary Wickman, associate dean of the nursing department at Vanguard. “Nurses go through a pinning ceremony and that is more meaningful and symbolic than even the regular commencement ... We are doing our best in a difficult time.”

Banks said commencement is particularly important for first-generation graduates.

“I’m a first-generation college student myself, so I understand the importance of what it means to witness someone receive a college degree,” Banks said. “It’s not only that person who is graduating. It’s their entire family. It’s heartbreaking for all of us that we can’t do it in person.

“But when things like COVID-19 happen, we have to adjust and be nimble and pivot to positions for the health and safety of our community.”

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