By Andrew Zucker
Jhinelle Thompson finished her Masters of Arts in Youth Studies at City University of New York (CUNY) School for Professional Studies (SPS), racking up more than $75,000 in student debt. She expected to walk across the stage at graduation, with her family in the crowd cheering her on. But her plans had to change on April 3, when CUNY SPS Dean John Mogulescu announced commencement would be postponed indefinitely as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I deserve the satisfaction of walking across a stage with my family present,” Thompson said.
There are over 100 colleges and universities within the Five Boroughs of New York, as well as at least 17 on Long Island. According to CUNY-released data, 57,139 degrees were granted during the 2018-19 academic year, roughly half of them granted during the Fall 2019 semester. Enrollment numbers have stayed relatively the same for the 2019-2020 academic year. Based off of Spring 2019 numbers only, at least 25,000 CUNY students will miss out on walking at commencement. If things don’t change, Thompson will be among them.
“I was in the middle of class when I heard that classes were to be cancelled for the rest of the semester and subsequently [the] commencement ceremony,” Chani Scott, a nutrition and exercise science major at Queens College, said. “I cried a lot… I was really sad I wouldn’t be able to have an actual graduation.”
Later that day, April 3, Queens College, another university in the CUNY system, announced commencement would be postponed to an unknown date.
Unlike Queens College, Baruch, another CUNY school, told its students in an email that commencement would not be pushed off, and the school would go forward with a completely virtual ceremony. Baruch students had mixed emotions in regards to the school’s decision to shift everything online.
“I’m happy [to] never set foot in college again,” Joe Harrari, a finance major at Baruch, said. “I go to a commuter school so there isn’t much saying goodbyes or moving out… I haven’t gone to a Zoom class since they started.”
While Harrari does not care about walking at graduation, some students, like Jacqueline Butler, are upset about the prospect of an online ceremony, because they wanted to celebrate with their families..
“I breathed a sigh of relief originally,” Butler, a computer information systems major, said. “I didn’t want to go to graduation but I knew I had to go, so my family could see me graduate.”
At some bigger schools, graduation celebrations are days-long events. Columbia University’s annual commencement brings together students from 18 different schools, universities and affiliated programs, with the deans of each individual school leading smaller celebrations. But for the first time since 1758, when the main ceremony first took place, the event will be held online.
“When I found out Columbia’s ceremonies were going to be online, it was just almost impossible to understand and accept it,” Kara Fleishhacker, a religion major at Barnard College, part of Columbia University, said. “The president of the university announced it [at the end of an email about] people affiliated with the university [who] had died of COVID-19, so it was not the focus of the email or something I expected to see.”
Out on Long Island, schools were less forthcoming about their plans for graduation.
“Hofstra never actually told us that our graduation would be online or virtual,” Simma Lamb, a public relations major at Hofstra University, said. “For almost all of March, we weren’t told much. There was a while that they didn’t mention graduation at all… [Hofstra] eventually sent out surveys to all graduating seniors to see where everyone stands on coming back to campus at another time to have a ceremony.”
Hofstra took its time to announce plans for graduation, eventually releasing a statement on April 20, via its website.
“Hofstra University plans an event to celebrate our May 2020 graduates on August 23, 2020 at the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex, in accordance with all public health, state and federal guidelines in place at the time,” the statement read. “However, if public health guidelines do not allow a gathering in late summer, we will host a commencement in December at which all May and August 2020 graduates will be welcome.”
Molloy College, another private college, roughly three miles south of Hofstra, had a combined 5,113 enrolled students in Fall 2019. Molloy also opted to not host an in-person graduation and instead will continue with an online ceremony. However, they have also extended an offer to students to come back for the May 2021 ceremony.
“I was home when I found out that graduation was online,” Kayla-Marie Lapitan, an accounting major at Molloy, said. “As seniors, we were stripped of all of our senior ceremonies.”
Graduation and the ensuing events meant a lot to her, Lapitan said. And while she is not alone in that feeling, some students have attempted to take the commencement changes in stride.
“My academic career here will end without a bang, but more of a whimper,” Finn Mayock, a political science and pre law student at Brooklyn College, said. “That being said, I completely and entirely understand the necessity behind this unfortunate circumstance. Large gatherings are a dangerous and potent vector for the transmission of COVID-19. I haven’t encountered a single student that I know who refuses to acknowledge that unfortunate fact.”
On Wednesday, April 22, Brooklyn College President Michelle Anderson announced via email that after taking students’ suggestions into account, the school would officially be doing commencement online, on the original graduation date.
“Graduation is very important to me,” Maria-Isabelle Parada, a journalism and media studies major at Brooklyn College, said. “I’m originally from Bogota, Colombia, and some of my family was going to travel to celebrate with me… since this is a unique experience, I also want my graduation to be unique. I would like my class to be remembered as the first ever Brooklyn College class to celebrate it through virtual reality.”
The online or postponed commencements have affected people from all walks of life. While at first it may sting, some students have come to terms with the situation.
“My family is hopeful that it is only postponed,” Nathalia André Pietrantoni, a History major at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said. “If not, it will be something you have to live with. I often say ‘c’est la vie’ — that’s life — since it is unfortunately something you cannot fight nor can you change as much as you would like.”