Commencement 2021: Where Will We Be?
The 2021 posters and flags seem to be taunting the graduating Class of 2021.
I vividly remember each time I’d visit my grandparents’ and great grandmother’s homes, I’d marvel at all the framed pictures hanging on the living room walls or sitting on top of the piano. There I’d see younger versions of my grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles and cousins each smiling for their professional graduation photo while donned in their university graduation cap and gown.
As my own graduation is speedily approaching, I remember those pictures and I feel cheated. Will the picture I took in front of a green screen in the Morg Lounge mean anything significant if there was no commencement or momentous occasion or actual celebration connected to the tremendous achievement of having completed an undergraduate degree?
Graduation means different things to different people. There will always be someone who doesn’t care about graduation, but there are so many people who really do. Graduation is when we take the time to reflect on how far we’ve come from day one of our compulsory education to investing in ourselves and in our education passed what is required. Graduation is a time to remember all of those times we crammed late into the night before a test, hours spent in the library and days where we thought we’d never get to this point. It is a time to stop, recognize and celebrate that we have something valuable about ourselves to be proud of.
As a third-generation Orthodox, female college graduate, graduation is not just about me. It is about my family, my parents and my grandparents. It is an opportunity for them to shep nachat and be proud of what I’ve accomplished, but also for them to see what they’ve accomplished too by helping me get to this point in my life.
For my roommate, a first-generation college graduate, graduating from Yeshiva University is magnanimous. It is a symbol for herself to see how far she has come and everything that she has gone through, in order to get to hold a college diploma with her first and last name on it.
For the Class of 2021, our college experience was normal one day and completely upturned within a 48-hour time period in March of 2020. No one could have imagined that we would not be returning to campus for the rest of the semester, let alone the many students who have still not returned, over a year later.
As we come to commencement it is even more so important that we take the time to acknowledge that together as a class we had a uniquely different college experience that previous and future college students won’t be able to relate to. The Class of 2020 lost the last few months of their last semester on campus, however, they had more than two-and-a-half years of memories and experiences throughout college. As the state of the world begins to revert back to normalcy, albeit quite slowly, and more and more individuals receive vaccinations, the hope is that the Class of 2022 will not have to question whether or not they will be able to celebrate in person. G-d willing, it will be a given. But where does that leave the Class of 2021?
On March 11, 2021, an email arrived in my inbox and it felt like a slap across my face. The email from the provost’s office stated that “Unfortunately, following the public health and safety guidance of New York City and New York State, as well as guidance from our medical director, we came to the conclusion that we could not have an in-person event attended by thousands of people.” As a senior reading this email, I was so frustrated by the clear lack of logic in this decision. Obviously, an in-person event with thousands of people was impossible, but we don’t need thousands of people to be there. A live ceremony for just the graduates, some members of the administration and a keynote speaker is all that we need to have a meaningful commencement. Yeshiva University is a relatively small university. The graduating Class of 2020 consisted of a mere 705 students. Understandably, not every graduate will be able to get to New York in order to participate in person.
However, there is a large percentage of the class that would do anything to have the opportunity to put on their cap and gown, hear their name announced, receive their diploma, and smile for their parents and grandparents, with extended family and friends watching on a livestream.
While in May 2020, it was infeasible to have an in-person graduation, we have come so far in innovative ways to create a meaningful hybrid event in which there are people both present in person and virtually. An in-person graduation is very possible to organize if put to the task.
The tekes ma’avar that took place on April 14, commemorating Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut was organized as an in-person and virtual event in the Max Stern Athletic Center on the Wilf Campus. For me, it was glaringly obvious that it is possible to organize a large-scale event indoors. Why would it be any different than hosting a graduation, especially if it would take place outdoors in a park? While commencement would have a larger audience, even if it only included the graduates, it could easily take place outdoors in a park, football field or parking lot.
Students at Yeshiva University are tested for COVID-19 twice a week and every day more students are receiving vaccinations. Further, as of April 6, all New York residents above the age of 16 are eligible to receive vaccinations. With a vaccination site located in Belfer Hall as well as in many other locations across the country, it is not unreasonable to require PCR covid testing and/or proof of vaccination prior to an in-person event.
As of April 12, 2021, updated detailed guidelines by Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office have been released, specifically with guidance for graduations and commencements. According to those guidelines, events with more than 500 guests can take place in a 20% capacity indoors. Proof of negative covid tests are required prior to entry. Yeshiva University already has a system in place keeping track of undergraduate students who are being tested twice a week. Special arrangements would not need to be made in order to ensure that the Class of 2021 is tested prior to an in-person event.
There were so many things that we needed to compromise on, that were just not possible to replicate virtually when we’re just doing our best to maintain our sanity when everything around us seems uncertain. The Chanukah dinner that student leaders are invited to, chaggigot, club events, Shabbatonim, YUNMUN, event planning, networking, internships, fellowships and jobs are just some of the examples of opportunities we missed out on.
After giving my final speech in my speech communications class outlining why the Class of 2021 should have an in-person graduation, and listening to my classmates, almost all seniors, share my frustrations, I knew that the 25 of us could not be the only ones.
An email on April 13 announcing a graduate-only “viewing party” just added to the discontentment. If there are plans for a viewing party, why can’t there be plans for a real commencement?
I deeply empathize with the graduating Class of 2020. They were robbed of closure. Their college experiences ended abruptly and unexpectedly and there was no end; it was just over. The Class of 2021, on the other hand, lost half of their junior year and then had to keep going, learning remotely, both remembering what there was before and being reminded on the daily how different everything is now.
Graduation can be the return to normalcy that we so desperately want. It can be a reminder of the first half of our college experiences and it will give us the closure the Class of 2020 lacked and the Class of 2021 craves.
There were so many experiences we lost this year. Graduation cannot become another thing that slips through the cracks. The Class of 2021 deserves to be celebrated in a safe and meaningful way. We do not want to be viewers at our own graduation. We want to be in it.
May 26, 2021: Where will we be?
Photo Caption: The 2021 posters and flags seem to be taunting the graduating class of 2021.
Photo Credit: Aharon Nissel