Pomp and unforeseen circumstances: WSUV and the first virtual graduation

WSU will stream virtual commencement ceremony for all six campuses on May 9 due to pandemic

VANCOUVER — They can’t be together, but they can all come together. Virtually.

Washington State University (WSU) usually holds commencement ceremonies at each of its six campuses in May of every year. Thousands of students walk across stages and receive their degrees as graduates of WSU. They say their “goodbyes’’ and “thank yous,’’ while proud family and friends cheer them on. 

WSU Vancouver’s 2015 commencement ceremony is shown here at the amphitheater in Ridgefield. Thousands of students graduate from WSU every year. Photo courtesy of WSUV
WSU Vancouver’s 2015 commencement ceremony is shown here at the amphitheater in Ridgefield. Thousands of students graduate from WSU every year. Photo courtesy of WSUV

This time, that won’t be happening. At least not in person. At least not yet. 

In response to the current pandemic, WSU is launching the first ever virtual graduation celebration for all of its 2020 graduates on May 9 at 10 a.m. The online event will consist of live messages from President Kirk Schultz as well as each location’s chancellor; for Vancouver, Mel Netzhammer.

“I know that this is not how they envisioned their commencement when they started with us,” said WSU Vancouver (WSUV) Director of Marketing and Communications Brenda Alling. “Their flexibility in participating in this virtual graduation celebration, and then waiting it out with us while we figure out how to pull together an in-person commencement ceremony is just so commendable.”

The broadcast will also include videos, photos and memories submitted by graduates themselves. All students who registered by April 12, even at WSUV, had the chance to submit a picture and special “thank you’’ message. 

Now, anyone is still welcome to contribute their memories using social media and the hashtag #CougGrad. These photos and posts will circulate on screen during the presentation and the countdown preceding it at 9:45 a.m.   

“We wanted to do something to recognize this transition for students, they have completed a tremendous amount of work,” said Vice President of Marketing and Communication for WSU in Pullman Phil Weiler. “We just didn’t want the end of this semester to go unrecognized. It’s really intended to be a celebration for students and by students.”

The May 9 event is being called an interactive webcast, since social media will be placed up in near real-time. In addition to President Schultz and the chancellors, the vice president of student affairs, the provost, student body presidents, college deans, and none other than Butch T. Cougar will join the show. The webcast will conclude with the WSU fight song. 

WSU plans to have in-person commencements in August if circumstances allow. WSUV is still deciding on a date for theirs, since they have to rent a facility and finding one right now is difficult, Alling said.

WSUV 2018 graduates show off their caps during commencement at the amphitheater in Ridgefield. WSUV still plans to have this type of commencement after the pandemic is over. Photo courtesy of WSUV
WSUV 2018 graduates show off their caps during commencement at the amphitheater in Ridgefield. WSUV still plans to have this type of commencement after the pandemic is over. Photo courtesy of WSUV

The switch to online learning happened just before WSU’s spring break, which was very helpful in allowing faculty and staff to prepare for the change, Alling said. At WSUV, students have been working from home or from the virtual classroom of their cars in the school’s parking lot with extended Wifi, for the last two months.

May 9 will be a celebration of this year and all it’s ups and downs, but an in person “reunion” is still the main goal, Alling and Weiler said. 

“If August doesn’t work out, we’re kind of looking beyond that,” Alling said. “Could we do a graduation in December that would be for our December 19 grads, our spring 20 grads, our spring summer grads, and our December 20 grads? Maybe we could do a whole year in December.”

WSUV switched to an online, distance learning model right before the university’s spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts in Clark County. Photo by Mike Schultz
WSUV switched to an online, distance learning model right before the university’s spring break due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impacts in Clark County. Photo by Mike Schultz

The full virtual celebration will likely last somewhere between 45 minutes to a little over an hour. During the presentation, Weiler said he hopes to give students a space to reminisce about their shared experiences.  

“One of the things that I think is fun about a traditional commencement exercise is it’s a chance for parents to come on campus and for students to say, ‘Hey, this is the building I took chemistry in,’ or ‘This is the residence hall I lived in,’ or ‘This was my favorite restaurant when I was on campus,’” Weiler said. “It’s hopefully different, but going to be equally satisfying to be able to celebrate virtually even if you can’t do it in person.”

This will be the first time all five physical WSU campuses and the Online Campus can celebrate graduating together. If the format is successful and people enjoy it, the university may actually make it a recurring event, even after the pandemic is over, Weiler said.

To find the webcast, visit experience.wsu.edu. To have your photos, memories and short videos possibly shared into the webcast, post the same day and use #CougGrad in your post. 

A Personal Aside

Full transparency, this reporter is a WSU graduate. GO COUGS! In that vein, I wanted to offer a brief word of encouragement to the college (and high school) graduates of 2020. 

My time at WSU Pullman was amazing, and difficult. I struggled with identity and what I was going to offer my world after it was all over and done at that commencement ceremony. I also learned that the most important things you take away are, truly, your experiences and the lives you impacted and were impacted by.

My time at WSU most certainly helped mold me into the more disciplined, motivated, creative, and peculiar (in a good way) self I am today. I’m a better writer (thanks Ben), a better filmmaker (thanks Jake), a better friend (thanks Carl), a better employee (thanks Roberta), and a better husband because of what the people there instilled in me.

So here’s my word of encouragement: Don’t dwell on the circumstances, dwell on the pomp. 

“Pomp’’ actually means “procession’’ and “circumstance,’’ in this case, means “standing around.’’ In other words, don’t stand around, discouraged because of COVID-19. Instead, join the procession towards your bright future. You are a valuable person with valuable skills and ideas. We need that. More than ever. 

Congratulations graduates of 2020. You’re all going places.

About The Author

Jacob Granneman is a filmmaker and writer from Clark County. He is a graduate of Washington State University’s Edward R. Murrow College, where he studied journalism and media production. He has produced documentary stories all over the Pacific Northwest and abroad in Argentina. His passions range from sharing the love of Jesus, to cinematography, to going on adventures in the most beautiful place on earth, i.e. his backyard. He lives with his wife in Vancouver, WA. Proverbs 16:3

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