Virtual Graduations and Why I’m Not In.

The world has largely moved onto virtual platforms over the last few months, and rightly so, with a large amount of success.

New software such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom have acted as absolute lifelines when hosting the weekly ‘pub’ quiz or having a catch up with your loved ones, discussing what a bizarre year 2020 has been for us all.

Despite some form of success, this virtual environment is not a satisfactory replacement to the ‘real thing’. For the graduating class of 2020, of which I am a member, COVID-19 has brought a particular kind of sadness. Regardless of the subject you studied, the degree classification you received or how long your studies were, the day of your graduation holds physical and metaphorical symbolism – something that I believe cannot be recreated through a screen. In amidst the chaos and trying to overcome the challenges that COVID-19 has posed to universities worldwide, the question about what to do regarding graduations is still pending.

A Daily Mail article published in March of this year stated that Durham, Edinburgh and Reading are among those institutions that have outright cancelled any sort of summer ceremony to mark the end of students studies this year.

The Office for Students – taken from the same article also announced in March 2020 that they are ‘exploring a variety of online and remote options’ concerning graduations, assessments and final exams. For most of us, the issue of assessments and final exams has been handled by individual universities, but a graduation is far different to an exam or assessment.

A graduation ceremony is the highlight of the calendar year for many students, with thoughts and feelings about the ‘big day’ shared across the whole of the student body from brand new first years to final years hoping to hold onto uni life before heading into the world of work.

Recently, universities such as Newcastle, Queen’s University Belfast (QUB) and Trinity Hall, Cambridge has announced their plans for virtual ceremonies. The Trinity Hall event was scheduled to take place on Saturday 27th June and encouraged students to not only attend but consider recreating the Graduation Day Menu in order to replicate the day as much as possible.

Similarly, Newcastle medical students were invited to watch the virtual graduation ceremony and then record their own reading of the Hippocratic Oath, which they can then share with their family and loved ones.

I am sure we can all fully appreciate the efforts and reasoning behind these virtual ceremonies; no one was expecting a global pandemic to pop up! However, it still remains that I cannot get onboard with a virtual graduation, and am still holding out on the hopes that circumstances will change and my particular university will continue to postpone celebrations until they can be carried out safely in person.

Reasons as to why I am not jumping on the virtual graduation bandwagon seem simple, but I hope can resonate with others. If you are in the same situation, know someone that is, or can find some sort of sympathy to those of us in the graduating class of 2020, I empathise.

The biggest issue for me is that graduations are most effective because they are based on physicality. The whole day is built on the foundations of the graduating class being able to do certain things that are reserved only when you finish your studies.

A major physical part is wearing the robes and mortarboard. These are not only the epitome of academic wear, they also fill the person wearing them with the level of self-achievement that they deserve. There are even distinctions between academic robes, with undergraduates, doctorate, masters and university officials all wearing slightly different gowns, hoods and caps in order to visually represent their different achievements.

The process of the year’s graduates coming together in a distinctive coloured robe not only celebrates the university’s academic credibility, but also shows that regardless of any preconceived societal factors or ‘labels’, within that moment and wearing them robes the graduates have accomplished something great.

Example of traditional UK graduation attire.

The traditional black mortarboard, also has an attached tassel which hangs on the left front side. Despite being a tradition founded in American graduations, the physical changing side of the tassel from left to right after receiving your degree is another way to demonstrate achievement. Not being able to wear academic dress, which for some will be a once in a lifetime thing, is heartbreaking, and a staple of university experience that should not be taken away due to virtual ceremonies.

In addition, the act of physically going up on stage, shaking hands with a university tutor, receiving a scroll that represents your degree (Spoiler Alert: its not your actual certificate, which comes in the post a few weeks after the ceremony…but thats not the point here), and getting a round of applause from family and fellow graduates is irreplaceable.

Although the moment may be brief,  it is nevertheless all about you, and congratulating all that you have achieved, with the tears, sweat and in some surprising cases even blood, you have put in to get to that moment. Not to mention, it gives your family the opportunity to dodgily film the whole thing on their mobile phones. Although there might be a finger half covering the camera, the angle will be completely wonky and the quality shaky due to the multitasking of trying to record and clap at the same time, that video will be shown to family and friends that were not able to attend graduation, and always watched with the fondest smile years later. 

This notion of having physical video evidence of you completing university goes beyond the actual ceremony. With your friends surrounding you on the day, there couldn’t be a better opportunity to grab the perfect shot for the gram. It might seem superficial, but I can’t think of a more special photo than the one of you and those that have been on this rollercoaster of a journey with you.

They know how it feels to go to a 9am lecture or seminar after a heavy night out at karaoke, have three deadlines due in the same week or stay up until the early hours in the library to only submit an assessment 5 minutes before its due. Whether it is academic or socially related, these shared memories live within the photos you take together on graduation day.

Not to mention there are also the professional photographs that are taken. Similar to the one you had in your first year at primary school, this will proudly be framed on the wall within the family home, a physical symbol for how far you have come and all you have learnt along the way. Photographs are a vital part of cementing your graduation day and keeping your university adventure alive, beyond the memories you have in your head.

As I said earlier, its simple really, graduations are meant to be enjoyed in person. The long-held traditions that occur within them simply cannot be replicated through a computer screen. Whether it is physical actions or metaphorical symbolism, a graduation is for you to celebrate and enjoy academic achievements.

I certainly do not want the right of having a graduation taken away and I hope through reading this article, you can see for yourself the reasons against virtual graduations and why I’m definitely not in.

Photo courtesy of Vasily Koloda

One comment

  1. I certainly feel where you are coming from. It is a lot about this kind of physical experience, and though a virtual one might be better than nothing, it cannot be compared to how graduation should be like.


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