Virtual Conferral of Degrees Ceremony Celebrates Class of 2020


Colgate University

University President Brian Casey conferred degrees to the Class of 2020 on May 17 over livestream on the University’s YouTube.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the University held a live streamed Degrees Conferral Ceremony May 17 after in-person celebrations for the Class of 2020 were postponed to May 2021. From 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m., President Brian W. Casey addressed the Class of 2020, friends and family, followed by a digital performance of “Colgate Alma Mater,” sung by graduating members of the University’s a cappella groups and a presentation of the names and image of each member of the Class of 2020.

According to Casey, the digital ceremony was meant to celebrate the achievements and efforts of the Class of 2020, rather than act as a replacement for an in-person Commencement. 

“As I thought of all the things I wanted to say to you on your Commencement Day, I knew the one thing I did not want to say to you was ‘goodbye.’ Well, this is not goodbye. It turns out our goodbyes will be for another day, on another warm morning when we’re gathered again by our lake on the bottom of our hill where the goodbyes will be softened with hellos and ‘I’m so glad to see you again,’” Casey said. “Today is the day to mark your achievements, to recognize the paths you took, to honor the ways you climbed. A day of complications, no doubt, but beyond, far beyond these complications, are your achievements, your work, your walks up this hill. And that is why, in rooms across the world, we gather again as a university in this new way to welcome you into the company of educated men and women, to welcome as alumni of Colgate University, to mark the end of your college days, to award you your degrees.”

On April 6, President Casey announced that there would be no Commencement on May 17, 2020, and that an alternative in-person celebration would take place on May 22-23, 2021. In response, Chief of Staff and Secretary to the Board of Trustees Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar convened a Class of 2020 Planning Committee to organize ideas and plan for the upcoming events. 

“They were pretty adamant against any kind of massive Zoom ceremony or anything similar to that, [but] they wanted some kind of photographic way to see every member of the class,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. 

Student Athlete Advisory Committee Vice President senior Samantha Croston felt having the Planning Committee represent the student voice of the Class of 2020 was significant. 

“We all knew that no virtual celebration would feel as special as the real thing. I think this group was so critical because we were able to provide that honest input and feedback so that most of the senior class felt that their voices were being heard,” Croston said.

Other members of the Planning Committee included Office of International Student Services, ALANA Affairs Committee and Raiders of Color Committee representatives, as well as members of SGA, Konosioni and more. ALANA Affairs Committee Representative senior Jordan Williams outlined the content of the two meetings that were held leading up to May 17.

“[The] majority of the time was spent listening to students’ ideas of what they think graduation would look like. The students on this committee represent so many different groups, organizations and populations on campus and so with everyone’s input we were able to create a hybrid of ideas for events. Specifically for the virtual graduation, no one really knew what that would look like so the staff on the committee really relied on our thoughts to put something together,” Williams said. “I think the majority of students on the committee wanted to save anything that is remotely similar to traditional graduation for the May 2021 date, but with a push from parents to have some sort of ceremony there was a compromise to have a short and sweet virtual graduation.”

For the second meeting, held on April 14, Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar convened members of the Parents Leadership Steering Committee with children in the Class of 2020. 

“[Parents] expressed interest in doing some kind of virtual event on May 17th – an opportunity for everyone to stop and celebrate wherever they were and at the same time,” Rodriguez-Farrar said. “[The Committee] also thought it would be nice to send the students some kind of gift from Hamilton, [as students] were nostalgic for campus [and] Hamilton businesses.”

As a result of this meeting, gifts were sent out to seniors on behalf of the Alumni Council and the parents and families from the Class of 2020. Konosioni Co-President and member of the Planning Committee senior David Little felt the gift posed as a reminder of Hamilton for graduating seniors.

“The group talked and felt like the seniors kind of had their spring taken from them without notice so it would be nice to get some sort of reminder of Hamilton. Every senior got a box of Maxwells chocolates and a box from flour and salt with a half dozen bagels, a cookie pie, and banana bread in the mail,” Little said. “It was fun sharing those gifts with my family as a way of bringing Hamilton to my family because I couldn’t have my family in Hamilton.”

Little also felt that the Colgate staff was effective in collaborating with the Planning Committee in the organization of the Conferral of the Degrees Ceremony.

“I thought the online ceremony was perfect. President Casey’s speech was incredibly moving. The a cappella was fun and it was nice to see pictures of everyone,” Little said. “It was not the goal to recreate graduation but instead serve as a meaningful mark in our journey at Colgate until we can celebrate in person.”

According to Rodriguez-Farrar, at the time of the event, there were 747 concurrent devices tuned into the live stream and over 1,000 impressions of the posted YouTube video. Throughout the May 17 virtual event, seniors were also invited to post to Twitter and Instagram using the hashtag #Colgate2020, and a live aggregation of posts from these platforms was shared alongside the video stream. #Colgate2020 was used 100 times on Twitter and in about 350 posts on Instagram.

An Honoring the Class of 2020 website was created with various video messages from alumni of the Class of 1995 and Class of 1970 and a video message from Dr. Jim Smith ’70. Smith contextualized this year’s disrupted commencement and senior year within others in Colgate’s 200-year history, including those of World War I, World War II, and his own in 1970, during protests against the Vietnam War.

“When world shattering events intrude on our placid campus and it’s academic routines, and then scatter us in all directions, we justifiably feel the sense of loss. But, it should not diminish your sense of accomplishment,” Smith said. “As you enter whatever post-pandemic world, I hope you’ll put that liberal education to its truest and most ancient purposes. A liberal education is a moral and civic education, and embrace those aspects of it. Brian Casey has spoken often about intelligence, empathy and grace, characteristics of mind and character that you have cultivated at Colgate. Reflect on how you’ll use them.”

Class Representative and Member of the Planning Committee senior Miller Ward felt that Colgate dealt with the sense of loss experienced by graduating seniors well. 

“I think Colgate has done the best job they could. The care packages were incredibly nice and Colgate was very receptive to the collective student response surrounding celebrations. It really felt like Colgate cared about our senior class’s loss of graduation,” Ward said. “They explored every option for a rescheduled graduation date and settled on the best time. Obviously none of this was ideal but considering the circumstances, I appreciate how much Colgate listened to the students about the best way to move forward and celebrate the Class of 2020.”

Senior Kayla Logar shared her experience with the virtual ceremony. She said although it was very different from an in-person ceremony, it was memorable. 

“One of my closest friends from Colgate recently moved near my hometown, so she came over for a social distancing compliant graduation celebration during which we sat apart on my family’s back deck and watched the livestream on a TV that we had set up outside specially for the occasion. At several points during the ceremony, it started to rain lightly and my parents, true to the way that they’ve always supported me, held umbrellas over the TV so that the show could go on,” Logar said. “President Casey’s speech was beautiful, and it was nice to watch the progression of names of graduating seniors and their photos. My friend and I each walked across the deck after our names were shown to celebrate, with some strong encouragement from my mom. Overall, despite everything that’s going on, the day was special, and I look forward to being reunited with my classmates to celebrate at our in-person ceremony next year.”

A virtual Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony was held on Saturday, May 16, and details on whether other affinity groups such as Lavender Graduation, ALANA and OUS/First will have specific observances will be shared as soon as they are available. In the fall, Rodriguez-Farrar will reconvene the Planning Committee and begin to discuss plans for May 2021. According to the University’s website, plans for Commencement thus far include lighting Willow Path, a Senior Torchlight Procession and a formal stage ceremony for graduates.

President Casey ended the Conferral of Degrees with mention of looking forward to Commencement in the future.

Please accept my congratulations on behalf of the Colgate University faculty and the Board of Trustees for your achievements. May God bless you and I, we, we all look forward to seeing you again on this, your, campus when you come back. And I will be there, on Whitnall Field, with my dog, waiting to welcome you back home. Congratulations and thank you, Class of 2020. God bless.”