When the pandemic forced last year’s graduating seniors to abruptly pack up their Oberlin lives, the College hoped to be able to invite them back for a joint commencement ceremony for both the classes of 2020 and 2021. Almost a year after they left Oberlin for the last time as students, President Carmen Twillie Ambar has announced that a celebration for the class of 2020 will not be possible due to COVID-19 concerns.
“We did not know at the time that the exodus would be permanent and involve the cancellation of your graduation ceremony,” Ambar wrote in an email to the class of 2020 on Monday. “It has been my strong desire to invite you back to campus for a commencement ceremony this year. But I am sorry to say that the conditions of this pandemic do not permit me to do so this May. We are not yet armed with enough of the vaccine to prevent the spread of this disease.”
According to Emily Speerbrecher, Oberlin’s COVID-19 project coordinator and a member of the Commencement Planning Committee, the decision to forgo welcoming 2020 graduates back to campus this spring was the only safe option.
“Last March I don’t believe that any of us imagined COVID-19 would be as much of a factor in our lives almost a year later,” Speerbrecher wrote in an email to the Review. “Unfortunately, COVID-19 remains a large part of our lives. Oberlin has implemented policies that limit all visitors to campus and enforces testing requirements for all students, faculty, staff, and vendors on campus. It is not feasible, following current policies and requirements, to welcome back the class of 2020 in a safe, responsible way. We continue to search for opportunities to do so.”
For Katie Lucey, a 2020 graduate, the announcement was not unexpected.
“I don’t think anyone was surprised,” Lucey said. “A year ago it seemed feasible that this May we would be able to regroup on campus and celebrate, but as time has progressed, it’s become pretty clear that this is an ongoing pandemic. Although it’s not a surprise, it did affect me. … Because I’ve been missing some of my college friends and it is kind of hard to think, like, ‘When will we all be together to properly celebrate the end of college?’”
While the class of 2020 did not get an in-person celebration, a virtual commencement was held last year. This commencement, planned by a committee of College administrators and eight students, involved a series of virtual events such as open houses from academic departments and a pre-recorded state-of-the-college address from President Ambar.
Tori Adams, another 2020 graduate and a member of the 2020 Commencement Planning Committee had mixed feelings about the ceremony at the time.
“It was no one’s first choice, but having been behind the scenes as part of the student commencement committee, I got to see all of the hard work that was being done … to make it happen.” Adams wrote in an email to the Review. “It was gratifying to see the participation and be so involved with my school before leaving it behind forever. Even so, commencement day arrived, I put on my cap and gown in my living room and sat on my couch with my parents, uncontrollably crying and also laughing as I watched.”
Still, Adams shares Lucey’s acceptance of the College’s decision for this year.
“As for this spring, I am glad the school has made the safe choice to cancel events,” wrote Adams. “Last spring if you’d told me it wasn’t going to happen this spring I would’ve been devastated all over again. But life has moved since then.”
This year, the College plans to host an in-person commencement celebration for the class of 2021 on May 14. This year’s programming will still be somewhat unconventional; it will take place over one day rather than a ‘senior week,’ family and friends won’t be able to attend, and many aspects of the celebration will be virtual. Members of the Commencement Planning Committee are hopeful that they can build on last year’s experiences.
“I think we have learned a great deal about how to sustain our community connections through technology, and I am confident the planning committee will provide creative opportunities for meaningful engagement,” Vice President and Dean of Students Meredith Raimondo, who was on last year’s planning committee, wrote in an email to the Review. “My hope is that the senior celebration provides students and families the opportunity to feel deeply proud of all that has been accomplished, and great excitement for what comes next.”
The in-person component of the celebration will be open to only graduating seniors, although students enrolled in the summer term will still be permitted to stay on campus. Returning students who are not enrolled in the summer term will have to leave by 9 a.m. on May 14, according to Speerbrecher.
According to Vice President and General Counsel & Secretary Donica Thomas Varner, this year’s Commencement Planning Committee has already started its work. Varner anticipates that the committee will announce the commencement speaker, the honorary degree recipients, and the distinguished service award within the next three weeks.
The decision to have an in-person component to this year’s celebration was vetted by the College’s COVID-19 Campus Health Coordinator Katie Gravens. Though Commencement usually brings a plethora of partying and visiting family members who travel from all over the world, Gravens is optimistic that Obies will continue to be responsible when it comes to reducing the spread of the virus.
“Oberlin students have understood the importance of the ObieSafe policies in keeping the campus safe and facilitating in-person learning,” Gravens wrote in an email to the Review. “It will be critical to follow policies so that students who will be on campus for the summer have a positive experience. Signing and following the ObieSafe community agreement demonstrates care for each other. Family and friends are asked to support the policies as well though we understand it is difficult to forego typical graduation celebrations.”
Speerbrecher is also confident that Oberlin’s positive health outcomes will continue until graduation.
“As students safely navigate the semester with low positivity rates, our ability to host an in-person celebration should remain intact,” Speerbrecher wrote. “We are continuing to evaluate campus, local, and national trends of COVID-19 to ensure hosting this in-person celebration will be safe for all involved. Should there be significant increases in cases or changes in the trends of the virus, our plans may be altered.”
Varner and the rest of the planning committee will continue to keep students updated on the celebration plans, and graduating seniors will receive a detailed packet of information on the event in mid-March.