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Emory prepares to celebrate the extraordinary Class of 2020

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Emory University will celebrate the accomplishments of the Class of 2020 next month with a series of Commencement experiences designed to unite graduates separated by a global pandemic in new and innovative ways.

At the same time, in response to student requests for an on-campus celebration, planning actively continues for a future in-person event — on a date still to be determined — that will invite graduates back to commemorate their achievements along with family, friends and the Emory community. 

This year’s Commencement activities were reconfigured to comply with physical distancing requirements that emerged in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced the cancellation of traditional on-campus ceremonies and related events.

Emory’s 175th Commencement ceremonies will take place Monday, May 11, in an online format that blends some of the university’s most cherished traditions with digital experiences designed to celebrate graduates in new ways, including customized video content that tells the story of the Class of 2020 through the voices and personal reflections of students and faculty members. 

“We recognize the important symbolic and emotional role that Commencement plays in the lives of our students, their families and the larger university community. Despite the restrictions of a global pandemic, we were committed to finding a way to celebrate the Class of 2020 in ways that honor some of Emory’s longstanding traditions while adapting to the limitations of social distancing,” says Debby Morey, vice president of business operations at Emory, who led campus efforts to redesign the annual event.

Central to this year’s Commencement experience is the launch of the “Y/our Moment” website, which will feature online event coverage, including opening remarks and the official conferral of degrees by President Claire E. Sterk, presentation of select university honors and awards, and a special interactive keynote address by acclaimed social justice advocate and honorary degree recipient Bryan Stevenson, who — in a Commencement first — will also use his time to personally respond to student questions.

Beginning Monday, May 4, this new digital hub will also provide special Class of 2020 video content, messages and interactive activities designed to allow students, family, faculty and alumni to share congratulatory notes, memories, photos and video clips. 

Leading up to May 11, students will also be able to watch video coverage of special award presentations and other student-generated content, including Baccalaureate reflections and performances. On Thursday, May 7, the site will feature a special online presentation by Comedy Central comedian and actor Ronny Chieng, the scheduled keynote speaker for Class Day, a longstanding undergraduate tradition. The presentation will include a recorded Zoom conversation that features Chieng answering student questions. 

In addition, Emory’s nine schools will recognize a wide range of individual student achievements; details about those events will be released by each school.

For graduating senior David Kulp, who was scheduled to present the Jewish benediction at Emory’s traditional campus Commencement ceremony, moving to an online format represents one more adjustment within a semester that has required many abrupt changes.

“It’s not going to be your typical Commencement,” acknowledges Kulp, an interdisciplinary studies major with post-graduate plans to attend the University of St. Andrews in Scotland as a 2020 Bobby Jones Scholar. 

 “We don’t know what the state of the world will look like a day from now, much less a month from now,” he says. “But the hope that there will be both an online and in-person celebration for graduating students in the future is something I’m really grateful for.”

Celebration shaped by student input

Although this isn’t the only time in Emory’s history that global events have interrupted Commencement exercises — during the Civil War, for example — it will be the first time the official conferral of degrees has been presented in an online platform. 

The new format is intended to commemorate the academic journey of Emory’s resilient graduates — and soon-to-be alumni — in ways both meaningful and inclusive, even as plans are being explored for an on-campus celebration to be held once restrictions on public gatherings are lifted.

“Commencement recognizes years of dedication and hard work, challenges and sacrifices, and, most important, growth. For most students, the event represents a once-in-a-lifetime moment. For many families, it represents the fulfillment of the hopes and dreams of generations. Emory will honor the Class of 2020 and recognize the unique obstacles its members have overcome throughout the current semester,” says Enku Gelaye, vice president and dean of Campus Life.

Revised plans for this year’s Commencement celebration emerged from the work of Emory’s Commencement Committee Task Force, which spent weeks gathering input from students to create a celebration tailored to meet current physical distancing requirements.

Navigating those demands, along with being required to move home and complete studies through remote learning, creates unique challenges for the Class of 2020, acknowledges Pamela Scully, vice provost for undergraduate affairs, who served on the task force.

“We are very aware that this has been a disruptive and challenging semester for all students, one with a particular emotional resonance for our seniors and even more so for our first-generation graduates and their families,” says Scully, who sought input from the provost’s Undergraduate Student Leadership Council, among other groups. “We wanted to find ways to acknowledge the importance of bringing their era at Emory to a close.”

Responding with creativity, resilience 

In the end, the task force developed a hybrid approach — a plan that offers both online participation in a May 11 ceremony along with the option of attending a future, on-campus event. 

“Students have been at the center of all of the planning,” acknowledges Michael Kloss, executive director of Advancement and Alumni Engagement events, who co-chaired the task force. “They were so generous with their time in the midst of transitioning to remote learning, providing candid input about the loss that they felt around Commencement.”

“We knew that there are important aspects that could be celebrated now and creative ways to utilize technology to commemorate this auspicious moment of academic achievement for students until the time comes that they can again return to campus for those important hugs and cap-and-gown photos,” Kloss says.

In an online survey conducted by Emory students, an overwhelming majority of current graduates supported providing an on-campus experience to celebrate Commencement in person, when possible. For others, who are transitioning to jobs, internships or advanced degrees, it was also important to find some way to commemorate the official conferral of degrees in May.

“It’s exciting that there will be an online platform, providing it’s accessible to everyone. For me, it doesn’t replace that in-person moment — I look forward to that in the future,” says Kulp, who’s already recorded the Jewish benediction for Emory’s Multifaith Baccalaureate Ceremony, which will be presented online. 

For Emory College senior Ben Palmer, president of Emory’s Student Government Association, “graduation is more than just receiving a diploma and leaving. It’s a long process of saying goodbye to the people and places who made you who you are,” he says. 

While Palmer appreciates efforts to design this year’s Commencement as a shared online experience, he also credits his peers for their ongoing resilience in adapting to unprecedented circumstances. “I’m just really proud of my class, the people I’ve grown up with over the last four years. I’ve always known they were exceptional. This is showing it in practice.”

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