Commencement 2021 brings in-person ceremonies that keep safety in mind

By Leigh DeLozier | Emory Report | April 21, 2021

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Emory University will celebrate its Class of 2021 with in-person Commencement ceremonies May 14-16 at the Georgia World Congress Center. A ceremony recognizing the Class of 2020 will also be held on May 15.

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Emory University will celebrate its Class of 2021 with modified in-person Commencement ceremonies May 14-16 at the Georgia World Congress Center (GWCC). A total of 14 Commencements representing Emory’s nine undergraduate and graduate schools are scheduled during the three-day weekend event. A ceremony recognizing Emory’s Class of 2020 also will be held on May 15.

While some aspects of Emory’s traditional Commencement ceremony must be adjusted to comply with health and safety protocols, the university is excited to host in-person events with many familiar elements: the bagpipes, wearing of academic regalia, presidential conferral of degrees, individual recognition of the graduates and the singing of the alma mater.

The primary difference is the offsite location in order to adhere to health and safety guidelines and the anticipation of less than ideal weather for the three-day celebratory event. Also, each class of graduates will have its own Commencement rather than all graduates gathering for a central university ceremony.

Each of the ceremonies will also be livestreamed for those who do not attend in person.

“We are excited to be able to offer students the opportunity to finally gather in person as a class and have a good, safe experience,” says Suzanne Eden-Antola, executive director of university events.

That is exactly what students want, according to input from last year’s graduates. For the students who shared feedback, gathering as a class with their school was more important than a university-wide event. Incorporating time-honored traditions and having the opportunity to hear their names announced were also top requests.

“Working with the Class of 2020 and knowing what elements of Commencement they valued most  helped us prioritize things for this year,” says Michael Kloss, executive director of advancement and alumni engagement events. “We’ve adapted existing traditions to a unique environment by creating a hybrid that combines elements that are traditionally part of the school ceremonies with key, critical elements of Commencement. Each school will have a standalone Emory University Commencement ceremony. The dean of each school will present the candidates and President Fenves will be at each ceremony to confer degrees. A representative from the Board of Trustees will be present to authorize the conferral.”

All students, whether they choose to attend in person or via livestream, were asked to submit slides with their photo and name, so that all could be part of the event. When it is time to be recognized during the ceremony, QR codes will be used to trigger a recording of each graduate’s name being read. This additional layer of technology assists with COVID-19 protocols by reducing physical contact and shortening the overall ceremony length.

All ceremonies will include a presentation and video response from Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health, receiving the Emory University President’s Medal. Fauci also will provide the keynote address during the Emory College of Arts and Sciences Commencement; his address will be delivered virtually, but in real time. The entire Emory community can watch via livestream.

Virtual elements will help enhance the celebrations, both for those who choose to attend in person and those who participate remotely. The Memories Wall, a popular element from last year’s virtual Commencement, will be available on the Emory Commencement website. Memories and congratulations for the Class of 2021 can be submitted now and will go live on the site April 27.

A ceremony on Saturday afternoon will recognize the Class of 2020 graduates whose Commencement ceremony was completely virtual last year due to COVID-19.  

“Last year we were able to utilize technology to present many of the key ceremonial elements, including the conferral of degrees and an extraordinary live Commencement speech by Bryan Stevenson,” Eden-Antola says. “Now this class will have the opportunity to gather one more time, cross the stage as their name is called and receive congratulations in person from President Fenves and their dean.”

Students should refer to their school’s communications for details related to their ceremony or visit the Emory Commencement website.

Celebrating with safety in mind

Through all phases of Commencement planning, being cognizant of safety has been at the forefront.

Wearing face coverings, staggering event times, designating school-specific entrances/exits and mapping one-way traffic patterns for each group of graduates and guests will aid in following physical distancing guidelines. Obtaining a COVID-19 vaccine is encouraged, but not required.

Graduates can register to receive tickets for two guests. Even if the maximum number of graduates and guests attend a ceremony, they will only represent a fraction of the room’s capacity — leaving more than enough space to comply with physical distancing guidelines.

In addition, “The number of air exchanges per hour have been increased to ensure introduction of fresh air in the space and high-performance filtration has been added to the HVAC system,” says Sam Shartar, director of operations for the university. “There are hand-sanitizing stations throughout the areas, high-touch surfaces will have enhanced cleaning and spaces will be disinfected between ceremonies.”

All graduates and guests should make themselves familiar with COVID-19 safety guidelines before the event.

For the most recent information, visit the Emory Commencement website. Graduates should refer to department communications to register and for ceremony-specific details.