Seniors will graduate in virtual ceremony, return for special Commencement in 2021

Alaa Ghoneim ’20, left, and Zarnab Virk ’20 celebrated the symbolic walk through FitzRandolph Gate before leaving campus in March.
Sameer A. Khan

For the Class of 2020, the spring semester of senior year virtually disappeared amid concerns due to the spread of COVID-19. When Reunions was canceled in March, the verdict on graduation was still out. 

“It’s the last thing we as seniors could really hold out for,” said Rohan Shah ’20. “We realized Reunions were going to get canceled, so we’re like ‘OK, at least we’ll get graduation.’ We’ll get that proper send-off.”

The announcement finally came on April 15: Degrees would be conferred in a virtual ceremony on May 31, and an on-campus ceremony would be held in 2021, on either May 19 or 20. In an email to graduating seniors and their families, President Eisgruber ’83 broke the news. 

“Your class has achieved as much as any in memory, and you have sacrificed considerably more than any that I can recall,” Eisgruber wrote. “Each and every senior on this campus lost precious opportunities and long-anticipated moments when this awful pandemic forced Princeton’s spring semester online. I wish that we could give those special experiences back to all of you; I regret very much that we cannot.”

Virtual events will also be held for the Graduate School’s hooding ceremony. This year’s master’s degree and Ph.D. recipients can participate in an on-campus Hooding Ceremony May 24, 2021. 

Although many seniors realized canceling graduation this year was inevitable, confirmation of the news still hurt. There were mixed reactions regarding the 2021 ceremony, ranging from excitement for a chance to reconnect with classmates to frustration with the continued uncertainties and lack of closure. 

The Undergraduate Student Government’s 2020 class representatives acknowledged these feelings in a letter to the class shortly after Eisgruber’s announcement: “Losing our graduation this year is disheartening, but I want you to know that the class officers and the administration are working diligently for you and our classmates to ensure we have an amazing graduation next year.”

Katya Vera ’20, who left campus to return to her home state of California, said she was pleased with the news. “A virtual graduation was just not enough to finalize all of our hard work and the hard work of our families as well and just [to get] closure with each other,” she said. Vera created a petition in mid-March requesting that the University hold an in-person ceremony at a later date. The petition gained more than 1,000 signatures. Vera said her biggest concern going forward is how financial needs will be addressed to help students return to campus next year. 

Financial support for travel expenses has been a huge part of Commencement planning discussions, said Juston Forte ’20, the Class of 2020 president. “The class has a pretty sizable budget that is usually used for Commencement activities,” Forte said. “Since it’s not happening this year, we’re discussing saving that and using it potentially as a financial aid to help students get back to campus.”

Tomi Lawal ’20 said the University made the right decision postponing the in-person ceremony, but with many details still unclear, he said he is worried about which celebrations may be cut from the May 2021 event. “I was really looking forward to the cultural graduation because at least for the Pan-African [ceremony], it’s an opportunity for students to be able to walk as their name is being read, to receive the stole, and to have your family cheer for you,” Lawal said. 

For others, the news was just another in a string of disappointments. “I’m feeling kind of cheated,” said June Philippe ’20. As a first-generation, low-income student, Commencement was a big deal for her and her family. While she doesn’t have a solution, she said the virtual ceremony and event next year just won’t compare to the usual Commencement celebrations. 

“It’s just a disappointment, considering everything that we’ve struggled with these past four years just to get to this point,” said Philippe, who does not plan on attending the virtual or in-person ceremonies.