Honoring Commencement traditions in the era of COVID-19

From digital memory books to regalia T-shirts to celebrity congratulations, university found new ways to celebrate students

McKelvey School of Engineering student Helena Hurbon opens her celebration box. Washington University sent 4,100 boxes to graduates around the globe.

Gina Tramelli, senior director of special events at Washington University in St. Louis, has been checking Friday’s weather all week. Call it force of habit. 

“There’s a part of me that still imagines that come 8:30 a.m. Friday morning, the Quad will fill up with graduates and families excited for another beautiful Commencement,” Tramelli said. “Next year, that day will come. But right now, those celebrations are limited to our screens.” 

Tramelli and Michelle Gelven, director of Commencement, are among the many staffers who found new ways to celebrate students and honor the tradition of Commencement in the era of coronavirus. There have been low points, like when 4,200 mortar boards momentarily went missing in transit, but more high points, like getting to know the student leaders of the Alternate Commencement Committee. 

“I won’t call it a silver lining, because our hearts ache for these students, but it’s been inspiring to see so many people pull together for our graduates,” said Tramelli, already hard at work for the rescheduled Commencement, slated for May 30, 2021. “We knew we couldn’t replace Commencement. But all of us were motivated by the hope we could deliver a little joy.” 

Take the celebration boxes sent to graduates this week. Each one contained a note from Chancellor Andrew D. Martin, a mortar board, a custom Washington University tassel and a green Class of 2020 T-shirt that mimicked the look of a regalia gown. Ordering schwag in, say, February would have been the simplest of tasks. In March, not so much. The German company hired to make the Washington University shield for the tassel shut down due to the virus. So did the backup vendor in Missouri. Finally, Gelven found a manufacturer in Mexico.  

“More than once, the entire project was close to being ruined,” Gelven said. “You just can’t make new green T-shirts in a pandemic. And shipments are hard to track right now. But in the end, it was worth it to see students opening their boxes.” 

The Commencement Office and Office of Public Affairs also worked with schools and affinity groups to create custom videos and digital slideshows, memory books and social media tools. The Brown School, School. of Law, School of Medicine and the Sam Fox School all collected messages from generations of alumni, while the College Arts & Sciences crowdsourced student photos from the first day of school, parties in the Swamp and study breaks in the Danforth University Center for its video, “Congratulations, Class of 2020.” 

Most celebrations and ceremonies also will feature two pillars of any Commencement — a message from the chancellor and a performance of the alma mater.

Chancellor Andrew D. Martin′s message for affinity recognition ceremonies.

Martin wrote and recorded multiple Commencement messages, each one tailored to its specific audience but all expressing his sadness that graduates have been denied the Commencement they deserve. Martin shot the videos in full regalia at Holmes Lounge, chosen for both its beauty and size, large enough to accommodate six feet of distance between him and a videographer. Brookings Quadrangle, of course, provides plenty of space, too, but Martin believed that iconic setting should be reserved for the in-person ceremony. 

“The Class of 2020 will be together again to participate in a WashU Commencement,” said Rebecca Brown, associate vice chancellor and chief of staff. “But the chancellor also wanted to make sure this week’s ceremonies honor tradition. Our hope is that, even at home, graduates will experience some of the pomp and pride that comes with Commencement.” 

The virtual ceremonies also will feature a new recording of the Washington University Alma Mater, which — along with “Pomp and Circumstance” — serves as Commencement’s  sonic high point. Jennifer Gartley, public outreach director for the Department of Music in Arts & Sciences, recruited a dozen faculty, staff, student and alumni singers to record their vocal parts separately. Department technical director Jamie Perkins then arranged and mixed the individual tracks — 25 in all — to create the final recording.

“Nothing can replace the feeling of standing in the Quad with music swirling around you, but hopefully this will provide graduating seniors with a small comfort and the sound of their WashU home,” Gartley said. 

Andy Cohen offering words of wisdom

If a chorus of “Our hearts are all for thee, fair Washington” does not inspire merriment among graduates, perhaps Andy Cohen’s sage words to “always make sure your breath smells good” will. Cohen was one of the celebrities, athletes and esteemed university leaders who responded to requests from University Advancement and trustees for recorded messages of congratulations. Supermodel and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss encouraged students to stay curious, while Ellie Kemper, star of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt” and “The Office,” and daughter of university trustee David Kemper, said she can′t wait to see what they accomplish next.

“We will celebrate properly as soon as we can stand within 6 feet of each other again,” Kemper exclaimed. “You guys, you have worked so hard. Congratulations!” 

Liam Otten, senior news director for arts and humanities, contributed to this report. 

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