Lockdown: Graduation ceremonies have gone virtual

Graduation ceremony. (PHOTO: Getty Images)
Graduation ceremony. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

For many students, graduation season is usually a jubilant time of the year. Many go out of their way to plan their outfits, practice their grand stage walk and embrace the cheering and ululation as they attain their credentials.

This great milestone is often held in large auditoriums with families, friends and the institution representatives present to share and witness the students’ success.

Nomahlubi Mtimkhulu, a final-year student completing her Diploma in Business Administration at Damelin, was looking forward to wearing her graduation gown on 17 April. But as the national lockdown has been extended to the end of the month, her plans for graduation will have to wait.

Even before lockdown was extended, Damelin sent emails and letters to inform the students that their graduation ceremony has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

“I wasn’t really shocked about their decision because of the pandemic that’s going on,” a calm Nomahlubi tells YOU. “It was for our safety and for now I’d like to remain indoors until it’s safe again.”

In a time when physical distancing is of utmost importance to curb the coronavirus infection rate, learning institutions have had to make tough decisions regarding their graduation ceremonies.

Students due to graduate from North-West University and the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) are still waiting to hear their fate, while the University of Cape Town (UCT) has already confirmed their decision to suspend the event until further notice.

“As deeply important as this event is for the campus community, it was much more important that UCT takes responsible decisions that will help to avoid the spread of COVID-19,” says UCT spokesperson Elijah Moholola. “The UCT executive has not taken this decision lightly. The university leadership understands the disappointment this has created, and that it disrupted the plans of many people who were looking forward to celebrating this important occasion.”

Other institutions such as the University of Western Cape (UWC) and Stellenbosch University (SU) have opted to find virtual solutions to proceed with the event. 

A 30-minute virtual graduation by the UWC includes Dr Thabo Makgoba, Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, officiating the ceremony and an address by Professor Vivienne Lawack, acting rector and vice-chancellor.

“As you all are aware, we’ve embarked on this virtual graduation because of the Covid-19 situation. On behalf of the university, I look forward to a time when you and your loved ones can celebrate a physical graduation ceremony. In the meantime, I wish you all the very best with your future endeavours,” Professor Lawack says in the video.

At only 8 minutes, Stellenbosch’s virtual event is much shorter. It features only the registrar and chancellor, Dr Ronel Retief and Professor Wim de Villiers, as well as Edwin Cameron, retired Constitutional Court judge, officiating the event.

“I’m particularly proud of Stellenbosch University being at the cutting edge of our national response to this disaster,” Cameron, himself an SU graduate, says. “Firstly, SU is conducting world-class research. Then there are our healthcare workers and medical staff and graduates. And thirdly, our personnel and students are making significant adjustments to prepare for distance learning and teaching. We’re in this together.”

The University of Pretoria (UP) are the most recent to embrace the online graduation trend with a six-and-a-half-minute virtual event posted on the institution’s website.

Professor Tawana Kupe, the UP’s vice-chancellor, presided over the event. In his speech, he refers to the Gabriel García Márquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera, which is set during the 19th and 20th century cholera outbreak in the Caribbean which claimed many lives but was eventually contained.

“Today I’m conducting a virtual graduation in absentia of all of you, our valued graduates, in the context of a global pandemic cause by Covid-19,” Professor Kupe says. “This virtual ceremony is to enable you to formally graduate so that you can get your certificates and get on with your lives. We can call this ceremony and the title of these brief remarks ‘Graduating in the Time of a Coronavirus Covid-19’.”

Internationally, the University of Washington, Pennsylvania State University, Newcastle University and the University of South Florida have all announced that their upcoming May/June graduations will be virtual ceremony.

So far, Japan’s Business Breakthrough University (BBT) virtual graduation has been a global highlight. BBT held its event with a few institution representatives and the assistance of some resourceful robots. During graduation, four graduates work remotely to operate Newme robots that act as stand-ins for the students.

The robots are all dressed in graduation gowns and have display screens showing the face of each student as proceedings take place. A live stream is also done to allow students to send comments and participate in the ceremony in real-time.

Sources: NWU, UWC, Stellenbosch University, University of Pretoria, UCT, BBC, Parent24

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