top of page
  • Stefanie Botelho

Thanks to Stefanie Botelho and University Business Magazine for quoting me in this article.

Updated: Apr 26, 2023

College commencement amid COVID-19

How colleges are creating memorable and personalized virtual commencement experiences as campuses are closed due to the coronavirus pandemic

By: Stefanie Botelho | Issue: May/June 2020 May 13, 2020

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE—Florida Gulf Coast University President Michael Martin dons full commencement garb as he records his graduation speech.

The coronavirus pandemic has and will continue to result in cancellation of important occasions, big and small. The college graduation is a particularly bittersweet loss in this fray. Many colleges and universities will likely host in-person commencement ceremonies later this year, but others are forging on now, building virtual events to celebrate students before summer begins.

Campus IT teams are already overloaded with remote learning needs, so many universities are outsourcing the process of creating a virtual ceremony with pre-recorded materials. Here’s a look at three actions these institutions are taking as they organize personalized, memorable experiences during the 2020 COVID-19 graduation season—creating pomp in uncharted circumstance.

Soliciting student and family involvement

With less than half a semester to plan, some higher ed institutions moved swiftly to reimagine their ceremonies. Florida Gulf Coast University President Michael Martin sent a letter to pending graduates inviting their virtual attendance to the May 3rd ceremony. A tassel and mortarboard were also included with the letter. Students were asked to don the graduation garb in a short video clip as they shared a sentiment of thanks, or excitement for the future.

These clips, along with Martin’s speech (recorded the day before the nation’s stay at home order began), were integrated with other media.

“We’ve developed a targeted social media video campaign featuring President Martin, faculty, staff and graduating seniors,” says Deborah Wiltrout, university associate vice president for marketing and communications at the university. “We also have a robust local media campaign, which has resulted in coverage by the region’s television stations and newspapers, about the event to generate excitement.” A story will be posted on, the university’s news website.

A secure student portal where students could upload a photo, a comment and/or personalized video was open for a 10-day period. FGCU, along with platform provider StageClip, reviewed all photos and videos to ensure appropriate content would be featured.

More moving online

A few of the colleges and universities that were converting their spring 2020 commencement ceremonies into digital experiences as of early May:

Arizona State University University at Buffalo Clemson University University of California, Davis Florida State University University of Louisiana at Lafayette The Ohio State University University of Oklahoma The Pennsylvania State University Portland State University Purdue University University of South Carolina The University of Texas at Austin University of Wyoming Youngstown State University West Liberty University

Keeping it simple in complicated times

Accessibility, simplicity and shareability. During virtual commencement season, these pillars of digital content have never been more important.

“We’re combining website, database and video technologies to deliver mobile-friendly and ADA-accessible content, and using a custom Snapchat lens so students can commemorate their special day,” says Jeff Garner, FGCU’s assistant vice president for digital communications. For ADA compliance, FGCU is embedding a clip of the full commencement and conferral speech from YouTube with closed captioning.

West Virginia University students are encouraged to wear their graduation regalia during their May 16th virtual ceremony. They’re also encouraged to share videos and pictures via social media with the hashtag #WVUgrad.

Like Florida Gulf Coast, WVU leaders tapped StageClip for assistance with the event. Graduates were encouraged to upload short videos, photos or messages which were formatted into individual ‘clips’ and available for them to easily share with friends and family via email and social media after the virtual ceremony,” says Lisa Martin, special events coordinator.

With many schools choosing third-party providers for commencement support, campus IT teams can focus on the evolving needs of their newly solely digital institutions. Colleges are also relying less on live streaming for these events—a technology that has been growing in popularity as a way to allow non-attendees to view ceremonies. The focus now is more on compiling pre-recorded material for an edited, smooth experience. Jostens, Definition 6, Full Measure and Marching Order are a few providers of virtual commencement platforms.

3 tips for a great prerecorded commencement speech

1. Look at the light by the camera, rather than off to the side at one’s own box on the screen. 2. If using a podium, have any notes out of sight. 3. Use hand gestures, facial expressions and vocal variety help to project personality.

Source: Eileen Smith, public speaking expert

Planning parting words carefully

A live commencement speech to a packed sports stadium requires a much different approach than a prerecorded talk. “The speaker should talk as if addressing a very small group in an intimate setting. Consider exchanging the podium for an armchair,” says Eileen Smith, a public speaking coach. “Think of this digital commencement speech as the modern day equivalent of President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats.”
In such chaotic times, it is important to validate the feelings of disappointment and frustration the audience has about not being together, says Smith.

At FGCU, many 2020 grads also faced the challenges of Hurricane Irma. President Martin’s address drew connections, and applauded their bravery. These kinds of personal connections and candid anecdotes will help students feel connected, even if they can’t be together.

For other colleges and universities whose leaders may choose to only delay their commencement ceremonies, sites like Quaranteen University—launched and run by students to provide ceremonies for high school and college students—offer alternate option. That is, a chance for students to pull together themselves to participate in a grassroots virtual goodbye.

Stefanie Botelho is UB’s newsletter editor.

24 views0 comments


bottom of page