Due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s Commencement & Reunion Weekend has been postponed until the spring of 2021, when the graduating classes of 2020 and 2021 will participate in a combined ceremony. A virtual celebration will replace this year’s in-person graduation ceremony that was originally scheduled for Monday, May 25.
The 50-year reunion for the Class of 1970 will also be postponed until 2021.
Members of the Oberlin campus and community were alerted to these updates via a Tuesday email signed by President Carmen Twillie Ambar.
“It is very disappointing to say that this year, we will be unable to experience Commencement & Reunion Weekend in the same way, due to the impact of the coronavirus,” the email read.
Vice President for Advancement Michael Grzesiak echoed President Ambar’s sentiment and described the College’s decision as an inevitable consequence of the ongoing health crisis.
“I think we felt this was the prudent response to the virus that we’re dealing with,” Grzesiak said. “Really, it’s not our decision. The unpredictability of the virus is what drove this.”
This decision follows the administration’s close monitoring of public health guidelines as the current health crisis has unfolded.
“We are in contact with the local Lorain County Public Health department,” Interim Chief of Staff David Hertz said. “We are in lockstep with them and everything we were hearing was consistent with this decision. So we don’t make these kinds of decisions in a vacuum.”
Many of the logistics for next year’s celebration, including housing, have not yet been finalized. Administrators acknowledge that the scale of a combined Commencement & Reunion Weekend presents limitations in the institution’s ability to fully accommodate all reunion clusters who would have returned to campus this May in 2021.
“There’s [just] been a long history and tradition of the newly graduating class and the 50th reunion class doing things together,” Grzesiak said. “So we’ve invited [the class of 1970] to participate in that next year. We cannot logistically or even financially just map over all of the other reunions from this year into next. We don’t have the space or funds for an event of that size.”
According to Vice President for Finance and Administration Rebecca Vazquez-Skillings, the financial implications of canceling this year’s Commencement & Reunion Weekend and hosting a combined celebration are not yet known. The administration is currently renegotiating contracts with vendors, some of which are binding.
“I don’t have quite enough details or information yet to know what the impact will be next year,” Vazquez-Skillings said. “There would certainly be some savings from canceling Commencement this year. But it’s difficult to talk about what that balance will be between potential savings this year and what costs might look like next year, without knowing quite what the program will be.”
Over 80 universities and colleges around the county have also postponed or canceled graduation ceremonies for the class of 2020, with some opting for a virtual ceremony.
According to President Ambar’s email, students who originally hoped to receive their diplomas in person this May will still get a chance to celebrate their graduations, albeit in an online manner.
“First, we are working hard to plan a virtual way to mark May 25, 2020, that reflects the student-first orientation of Commencement,” President Ambar wrote in the email. “We have what we believe to be a great idea, but we would like to work with Student Senate before we unveil it.”
Henry Hicks, College third-year and chair of Student Senate, first learned of the potential collaboration between Senate and the administration in planning this virtual celebration via President Ambar’s email. Student Senate plans to work closely with administrators to ensure that graduating students’ voices are heard in the planning process.
“Student Senate is looking forward to collaborative work regarding Commencement, and hopes to provide an option that is both satisfying to fourth-years, and accounts for the necessity of social-distancing during this public health crisis,” Hicks wrote in an email to the Review. “As the semester continues, Student Senate will remain active in our advocacy for the issues affecting students during this time.”
Students have expressed concerns about where planning will go from here. College fourth-year Nae McClain served last year as class president for this year’s graduating class. In the past, class officers played a significant role in planning Commencement, but the class council system was discontinued this year.
McClain said that, while she is happy there will be a ceremony at some point, she has mixed feelings about the announcement, and feels that many of her fellow fourth-years agree.
“I think for me it’s hard to be too excited about things, though, until all of the details are worked out and made public,” McClain wrote in a message to the Review. “I think now I just have so many questions that nobody really has answers to. … Commencement is important for a lot of people, especially for first-generation students, so I’m hoping it can be just as special for them as it would’ve been if we had it this year.”
According to Chief of Staff for Advancement Lauren Haynes, the administration will engage various stakeholders — including reunion class planning committees — in the coming weeks and months to plan the joint ceremony. These committees typically begin working two years prior to their reunion celebrations.
President Ambar’s email also stated that the administration will assemble a group of students from the Class of 2020 to help plan next year’s celebration.
Administrators are empathetic to graduating students who found their last semester at Oberlin and subsequent Commencement events suddenly cut short.
“We all feel the loss,” Vazquez-Skillings said. “Commencement is the culminating experience — Commencement activities and various senior exercises, senior recitals, research projects. [We] know, particularly for seniors, that this was a really abrupt end to the year, … but I would say that the key driver is health and safety.”