In-person commencement ceremonies are returning to St. Thomas. While the ceremonies will look different than in years past to adhere to COVID-19 protocols, the same St. Thomas personal attention will be present.

“The most important part is the individual names being read and students having the opportunity to walk across the stage,” said Dr. Karen Lange, vice president for student affairs. Also, President Julie Sullivan will be present at the ceremonies, handing the graduates their diploma covers and officially greeting them as they embark on their life’s next journey.

Students agree that these traditional, in-person moments are especially welcome.

“I think it is so important to us seniors to be able to graduate together, in person, because this has been such a different year, and we have felt far apart from each other due to our minimal opportunities of interaction, which we have missed so much,” said Abby Johnson, senior class president.

Arranging all the details for socially distanced, but meaningful commencement ceremonies took in-depth planning by university administration, faculty and key student representatives. The university will hold multiple, smaller and shorter ceremonies with a set number of guests per graduate. For those who cannot attend in person, the ceremonies will be livestreamed and recorded. In addition, students who choose not to participate in person can send in their photo to be included virtually.

There will be a total of eight commencement ceremonies: three undergraduate commencement ceremonies on May 22, two graduate commencement ceremonies on May 23, two School of Law commencement ceremonies on May 16 and one Dougherty Family College commencement ceremony on May 23. All the ceremonies will be held outside at O’Shaughnessy Stadium. In the event of extreme weather, the ceremonies will be moved indoors to Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex field house.

Knowing the amount of effort that would need to go into having in-person commencement ceremonies, the Campus Life team conducted focus groups to listen to students’ voices. What they resoundingly heard was the importance to the students of being together, in person.

“I am very grateful to all of the administration and those behind the scenes who have worked hard to make this possible for our class,” said Johnson. “From my role on Undergraduate Student Government, I am lucky to be able to talk to many students in my class and hear their thoughts on our final few weeks here at St. Thomas. Overall, it seems like sentiments are very similar throughout the class that we are so excited to be able to safely be together and celebrate in person, while also having virtual options so that all students can participate.”

Another advantage of multiple ceremonies is that more than one student will have the opportunity to be a featured commencement speaker. Undergraduate students graduating in May 2021 were invited to submit a speech via unlisted YouTube video. The selected speakers will give their speech at one of the three undergraduate commencement ceremonies. Student speakers are required to have a 2.75 GPA and be in good standing.

“Although we won’t have a keynote commencement speaker like we typically do,” said Lange, “we look forward to hearing the inspirational words of our talented students and having them connect with their peers in a meaningful way. This is all a part of how we’re maintaining what’s most important to us: the personal attention, walking across that stage and getting their name read.”

The St. Thomas traditions of March Through the Arches for first-year students (May 14) and March Out of the Arches for seniors (May 21) are returning as well, but in a socially distanced fashion. “With March Out of the Arches, I’m excited that some families will be able to come with their children, and brothers and sisters can attend who wouldn’t be able to be at commencement [due to guest limits],” said Lange. “There will be more opportunity at March Out of the Arches because it will be spaced out over several hours. People will be able to stand in their family units to see their student march out.”

Johnson added: “In-person commencement will be the perfect closure to a final year that was so different, and the perfect time to be together for the first time in a long time, and perhaps the last time ever.”

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