Commencement news met with mixed reactions from students


Courtesy of Roger Williams University

Class of 2018 graduates participate in commencement ceremonies on May 19, 2018.

Grad walks for the Classes of 2020 and 2021 will make up the in-person component of this year’s commencement celebrations. Guests will not be allowed at either of these events, so families and friends can only watch via livestream.

University President Ioannis Miaoulis announced the news via email on March 23. The decision was met with mixed reactions from students, with many expressing their disappointment about the no-guest rule.

“I don’t feel great because we’ve been here for so long and I feel like it would be nice to finally have friends, family and loved ones around to be able to celebrate this kind of occasion with us,” said senior Mounir Majid. “I understand why they’re doing what they’re doing but it would’ve been nice if they could have tried to implement something like a socially distanced commencement.”

Miaoulis and Assistant Director of University Commencement and Special Events Melanie Stone said the main limitation is state regulations, which have been the guiding factor for commencement planning. Current guidelines in Rhode Island allow for 200 people at an outside event. If just two guests per student were allowed to come, there would be close to 2,500 people at the event, which would violate that mandate.

“This is the best that we can do right now. We have really tried to talk among the university and find solutions and that’s the best solution we have. I don’t like it either, but what are you going to do? It is what it is. At some point, you accept the reality and you move on…” Miaoulis said.

This announcement is consistent with that of other colleges in the state. Salve Regina University, Brown University, Providence College and Rhode Island College all released announcements within the last two weeks stating guests will not be welcome at their ceremonies.

“We really have looked at all the different possibilities and how we could bring two parents back and do pods and we looked at all the different variables that we could try and it just wasn’t working,” Stone said. “It has been challenging and nobody wants what we’re doing but it is what the state will approve and it is what we can offer without going completely virtual.”

The announcement raised various questions among students and parents in regards to the no-guest policy, choice of location and decision to not stagger smaller ceremonies over a longer time span.

Stone said there are a lot of layers to having multiple commencement ceremonies across a week-long time frame. Finance, staffing, university means and other pre-scheduled senior events that take place that week were all factors in the decision to not plan the events that way.

“It’s not a money issue, it’s logistics… The faculty have a contract and they wouldn’t stay another full week just to go from commencement to commencement. It was overly complicated. I know it would be great if we could have the parents here,” Miaoulis said.

Miaoulis also mentioned the waiting period that some students would have to go through if the events were held over a week-long span, saying most students want to finish their degree and go home or start their jobs.

“Sitting around for five days waiting for your commencement would not be optimal too. So it sounds good but once you are there after classes, after exams just sitting around, it’s not going to be a nice experience… It’s not optimal but this sort of makes sense. It’s all done in a day and then they can go home,” Miaoulis said.

The decision to hold the grad walks inside the Recreation Center also came as a surprise to students, given CDC guidance that socially distant, outdoor activities are a safer option than being indoors. Stone said the committee repeatedly faced challenges trying to navigate this while taking all of the COVID restrictions into consideration, such as six-feet social distancing protocols and having a tent large enough to cover everything in the case of inclement weather.

According to Stone, the largest tent the university has would only allow around 50 graduates inside at a time if two guests per student attended. This is how the committee came to the format of a grad walk, which would give students the opportunity to have their individual moments on stage. She said an indoor setup is also more feasible from a technology perspective, with the necessity of lighting and audio components, along with recording the livestream.

Still, many students are upset by the news. As of March 25, more than 400 people have signed an online petition titled “Allow families to attend RWU 2021 graduation ceremony.” Multiple people shared their thoughts on the university’s decision in the comments section.

“Absolutely insulting to have this sprung on us on a random Tuesday with no prior notice or asking for senior input,” wrote Caitlin Mallahan in her reason for signing the petition. “We see random families of potential incoming freshmen on tours of our campus every day, but our families and loved ones aren’t allowed to come on campus and watch us graduate or even play in sporting events.”

Some parents also expressed disappointment through the petition site. Mary-Ellen Pace-Costa said she was distraught that she would not be there in person to see her son cross the stage and receive his college degree.

“By holding ceremonies virtually, you are denying us the right to celebrate along with our students. It is as much our day as it is theirs as we as parents/guardians have worked just as hard to get them to this stage in their lives as they have,” Pace-Costa said.

Miaoulis encouraged students to look at the event format through a different lens.

“At least we can have in-person for the students,” Miaoulis said. “People should start looking at the glass half-full because it is half-full… at least they can celebrate with their classmates and cheer each other [on]. The unfortunate part is the parents but at least we have half of it versus nothing that we had last year.”

Some students are glad they get to have an in-person component in any capacity.

“I think that’s an opportunity that not a lot of people have in general… so I think even just having an in-person ceremony, it’s going to be great either way,” said senior Nora Brigham. “I mean I’m grateful for it at least.”

University officials discussed the possibility of state guidelines changing before the event occurs. Though they would love to rework things if regulations changed, Stone said it would be very hard to change the format completely and added they don’t foresee a giant change from the format they have now.

“At this point in the process, it is one of those plans that once we start planning, there really is no realistic and feasible way to completely pivot and change the program completely. So our outlook right now is we will be going forward with the plans,” Stone said.