By: Yosef Lemel  | 

Commencement 2021 — A Chasm of Uncertainty

As the academic school year winds down and the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, there are many questions that remain unanswered, perhaps rightfully so. After all, even with the rollout of the vaccine, there is uncertainty and controversiality regarding when, if anytime, society will return to “normal.” 

I hope and pray that the normalization will occur by Pesach; at least a month of maskless college with aspects of student life — such as large Shabbos meals with talmidim sitting side-by-side and singing z’miros — allowing for maximal attendance and participation is a utopian ideal. Perhaps that hope is in vain. However, if there’s a way to get real college life back into Yeshiva while adhering to the necessary health regulations, the university administration should draw up the plans. If possible, graduating seniors should leave on a high and optimistic note and first-year students should have a taste of what college life entails under normal circumstances. 

This brings us to commencement exercises. There has been scant communication — notice the trend? — from the university administration regarding graduation and in what manner it will be conducted. As I asked in my first editorial, “Will my class have an in-person commencement ceremony or will we be forced to relive another virtual celebration?” Almost eight months later, the question remains unanswered. 

Students pay a $150 fee to graduate — on top of all the tuition and expenses shoveled into the university machine; yet, in exchange, there has so far been no communication from the university or a demonstrable effort to collect the sentiment of students regarding the graduation ceremony. The purpose of graduation, in its general pomp and ceremony, is to leave students with a positive lasting impression of university life, allowing them to part with the more tasteful aspects of their college experiences. In the long term, the reinforcement of positivity towards their alma mater may prompt alumni to donate to the university. It would be sensible policy for the university, at the very least, to ask the students what they want their graduation ceremony, given the circumstances, to consist of. 

In my last editorial, I called last year’s graduation “pitiful.” It was — perhaps not due to the efforts of the administration, but because of the unfortunate situation everyone was stuck in, with a sense of dislocation resulting from the fully virtual college experience. As one graduate described it, “The entire ceremony was two dimensional, consisting of everything happening on a 13 inch screen in my living room. I got into my cap and gown five minutes beforehand and simply watched the pre-recorded proceedings instead of being in a crowd with friends, joking around and cheering when hearing our names called by the Provost to be awarded our degrees.” I had very similar thoughts to this student. From my experience, commencements might generally be termed as … well … “boring,” but 2020’s was particularly boring, in a more impersonal manner; virtual events tend to lend themselves to such experiences. My fear is that the passionless virtual format will be repeated this year. 

Indeed, one student created a petition to postpone the Spring 2020 graduation to Fall 2020 in anticipation of conditions that would allow for an in-person ceremony. Over 500 individuals — students, parents, siblings — signed on to the petition. As it turned out, health conditions would likely not have been ideal for a ceremony in the fall, yet graduates displayed admirable hope for such to be the case. 

This semester is different. In the Spring 2020 semester, all students were spread over the globe, virtually attending classes; it was an impersonal experience that culminated in an impersonal graduation. Now, however, we have experimented with in-person experiences during the COVID-19 era. Students regularly attend in-person shiurim and classes — however limited they may be. Indoor dining, with the allowance of two students per table, will now resume. The Gottesman Library — excepting the infamous fourth floor — and batei midrash have operated as centers of actual human interaction. For those who elected to return to campus this semester, there are some aspects of university life that are personal in nature. The culmination of personal experiences must not be an impersonal one. 

A function in Madison Square Garden, as is the usual fare, may be impracticable given the uncertainties of the current health situation. I would suggest that the university consider an outdoor ceremony. There is no shortage of large grassy fields around the tri-state area where this could work. In fact, Yeshiva University High School for Boys (MTA), my alma mater, held an outdoor ceremony last year. I understand that the university has a much larger population than the high school, but there certainly must be ways in which an outdoor ceremony could be feasible. An alternative, for example, to one large outdoor ceremony would be to have in-person livestreams in multiple locations with various faculty and administrators present at each location. Perhaps there could be a location for Teaneck students, one for those in Five Towns, another one for Monsey residents, etc. While I would prefer a single large outdoor graduation to this alternative, anything would be better than a fully virtual experience. 

Last year, 10 graduates in Monsey were actually lucky enough to attend one such ceremony on Associate Dean Shoshana Schechter’s front lawn and receive fake diplomas from Vice Provost Chaim Nissel. One attendee said, “It was a uniquely touching experience and I give my warmest thanks to all those who planned it and made it possible.” Indeed, while the administrators involved should be commended for their efforts in making the day of some Monsey graduates, hundreds of other graduates did not receive the same treatment. 

This year, the university should provide an in-person graduation experience. While some of the suggestions mentioned in this article may fall short in certain aspects of the average graduation, they would be highly preferable to another virtual “ceremony.” It would behoove the powers that be to consider various options aimed at maximizing the student experience. Additionally — and I cannot emphasize this enough — graduates must be effectively communicated with through every step of the process. Simple acts of outreach, making students feel like their opinions are worth anything of value, would go a long way. 

Commencement exercises are primarily conducted for the sake of the students and their families. For faculty and administrators, a graduation ceremony is just one of many they will attend. The student, on the other hand, is offered a sense of finality in the culmination of their college experience. Their families are offered the pride of seeing the symbolic transition of their loved ones to their next stage of life. There’s a fair case to be made that their opinions regarding this experience should be respected and count for something. 

And for God’s sake, if the worst happens and there indeed is a virtual ceremony, I ask the university to not enable a stream of emojis to constantly bombard the presentation — especially during the serious, more sacrosanct, portions. Or, at least, get the students’ opinions on it!