Muriel Wang ’20 had looked forward to commencement for months. The capstone ceremony would have brought family members from Asia to watch her walk across the stage alongside her peers. But an email from University President Peter Salovey last week dashed those expectations.
Salovey announced in a University-wide email on Wednesday that the 2020 commencement exercises, previously scheduled for May, will no longer occur as planned. In a follow-up email to the News, Secretary and Vice President for Student Life Kimberly Goff-Crews clarified that while commencement has been “cancelled,” the University is planning other ways to recognize and reconvene the Class of 2020. With Wednesday’s announcement, Yale became just the latest in an onslaught of universities to cancel graduations and commencement ceremonies — all part of a global effort to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“I know you have been following the news around the world closely,” Salovey wrote in his email. “To continue to do our part to end the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot come together in May to commemorate commencement activities in the traditional ways. However, know that we will be welcoming you back to campus to celebrate your achievements when this crisis is behind us.”
Other universities around the country have taken similar measures, either cancelling or postponing graduation ceremonies until the threat of COVID-19 dies down. For example, the University of Pennsylvania scheduled a virtual commencement in May and postponed in-person celebrations until the administration thinks it is safe to host such large gatherings. On Tuesday, Brown University announced that its exercises would be postponed.
In his Wednesday email, Salovey said that Goff-Crews will reach out to students soon with updated plans. In an email to the News, Goff-Crews wrote that she and her colleagues are “truly disappointed for our graduating students.”
“Each year, the University community looks forward to this celebration of student achievement in a wide variety of human endeavors,” Goff-Crews wrote. “Although it is no substitute, we will, with student input, identify ways to celebrate graduates in May and will put plans in place to bring members of the Class of 2020 together again.”
Goff-Crews wrote to seniors in a Wednesday email that she will soon convene a planning committee — which will include students — to discuss “future celebrations.”
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun has appointed treasurer of the Senior Class Council Vignesh Namasivayam ’20 and Class Day Committee member Nathan Isaacs ’20 to represent Yale College on the planning committee, Goff-Crews told the News in a Thursday email. Graduate and Professional Student Senate President Hao Xing GRD ’22 and Graduate Student Assembly President Lucylle Armentano GRD ’21 will select graduate and professional student representatives, she added.
“Student members of the ad-hoc commencement committee will make an important contribution,” Goff-Crews wrote. “They will help gather additional student comments through methods including the survey that class officers have already conducted with members of the senior class. We’ll also work directly with school deans, YCDO deans, cultural center directors, and staff who coordinate commencement at each school and I expect they will reach out to their students as well.”
According to Isaacs, the Class Day Committee had been planning the Class Day speaker and the class anthology, among other items, before the pandemic interrupted their plans.
Isaacs said that both he and Namasivayam are “incredibly excited” to work on this committee and hear from their fellow seniors about their ideas for commencement.
“What I’m most excited about for the committee is being able to really bring [together] all the different student voices and make sure that the modified commencement really represents the best combination of what people want in our class,” Isaacs told the News.
Namasivayam echoed Isaacs, saying that he looks forward to representing the Class of 2020 in the committee’s discussions. While the committee has yet to plan the first meeting and confirm all its members, Namasivayam said that he and Isaacs will focus on replicating undergraduate experiences such as Class Day and Senior Week.
For some students, the communication from Yale regarding commencement was unclear. Roula Sharqawe ’20 said she and her friends were “very confused” by vague statements within Salovey’s and Goff-Crews’ emails, neither of which outlined what the alternative to the traditional commencement would be.
“Is it going to be a traditional commencement?” Sharqawe said. “Am I going to sit with my dean one on one and just be congratulated? It’s very not clear what form is this celebration going to take.”
Sharqawe pointed to multiple peer institutions’ announcements, such as Harvard and Brown, all of which promised their students that the commencement exercises had been pushed, not cancelled. According to Sharqawe, she expected the University to use the word “postpone,” or a similar phrase in its communications — but it did not.
In a follow-up email to the News on Saturday, Goff-Crews confirmed that commencement had been “cancelled,” and that the University will find alternative ways — digitally or through mail — to acknowledge the Class of 2020 in May. She added that her office is “actively exploring” other ways for graduates to return to campus for in-person ceremonies and that a “feedback mechanism” will be implemented for students to share ideas.
According to her Wednesday email, Goff-Crews’ office will work closely with the University registrar to ensure that graduating seniors will receive their diplomas on time. In addition, the University will also fully refund any deposits made for caps, gowns or on-campus housing arrangements. Still, Sharqawe added that the refunds raise questions about whether graduates will ever actually get to wear the caps and gowns in a traditional commencement.
Sharon Li ’20 wrote in an email to the News that she feels “VERY strongly” that the University should reschedule its traditional ceremony and senior week. She added that Yale should also provide housing and food — and ideally travel fare, although she told the News that she understands the large cost of such an endeavor — for all students when such a ceremony does take place. Li pointed out that many students may struggle to attend an event during the work week, so the University could also provide a weekend option for celebration later in the year.
Wang said she would prefer the traditional commencement exercises, but she also recognizes the logistical issues of holding a delayed ceremony. While she believes the University took the only course of action regarding May’s schedule ceremonies, given the severity of COVID-19, she said she has truly felt “a collective sense of powerlessness over these circumstances,” for the past few weeks.
“Above all, I was really looking forward to it as being a chance to celebrate with my family and friends, to formally thank all of the people at Yale who have helped us reach that stage, and to bid farewell to my college years one last time,” Wang wrote.
The University originally scheduled commencement exercises for the Class of 2020 for Monday, May 18.