Rows of grinning grads in billowing purple gowns won’t line the Quad in early May as planned. Glowing parents won’t howl or whoop as their child strides across the stage. Thousands of graduation caps won’t victoriously arc through the air.
This follows an email from JMU President Jonathan Alger on March 18 announcing that spring commencement ceremonies are postponed due to the rapid spread of the coronavirus.
“My heart aches for all of you who have poured yourselves completely into your own unique and special Madison experiences,” Alger said in the email. “It was impossible for any of you — or indeed any of us — to have imagined that the school year, and for some your academic time at Madison, would end in this way.”
Interim Director of Communications Caitlyn Read said the decision to postpone was based on guidance issued by the White House and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam (D), who warned against group gatherings of more than 10 people. All events on JMU’s campus, regardless of size, are canceled through May 15.
A new date for graduation ceremonies hasn’t yet been solidified. Read said too many questions surrounding the longevity and effect of the coronavirus still exist to reach an informed decision. She also said there’s no way to know how rescheduling will impact how many graduates attend or who will deliver commencement speeches at the future ceremonies.
Read said that although JMU will confer degrees to graduates on time in May and graduates will receive their diplomas in the mail this summer, the decision to postpone was “gut-wrenching.” She said the administration understands that commencement ceremonies are the “crowning jewel” of students’ academic achievements, but the threat of the pandemic was too great.
“There’s no way we could’ve held the ceremony as planned and still protected the health and wellbeing of our community, which we are bound — as an institution who prides itself on ethical decision making — to do,” Read said.
Senior history major Paul Hanna said he’s “grieving the loss” of his last semester in college. He said he wished he knew when his friends left for spring break that it’d be the last time he’d see them as fellow Dukes.
“My chance to say goodbye was taken away,” Hanna said.
The announcement to postpone comes after a viral online petition earned 3,894 signatures from students, alumni, parents and others in the JMU community. It begged university administration to refrain from canceling the ceremony.
“We have worked tirelessly towards commencement, and commencement is what we deserve to cap off our beautiful and unforgettable experiences at JMU,” the anonymous student who created the petition wrote in the description.
Hanna, “heartbroken” his graduation ceremony may be canceled, shared the petition to the Facebook page JMU Nation, where it immediately gained traction.
“Up until that moment, we didn’t have a voice or a way to have our individual stories shared,” Hanna said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Tim Miller commented his support for rescheduling graduation ceremonies on Hanna’s post.
“This is what we want, too,” Miller commented on Facebook. “It’s all I want for our graduating seniors and graduate students. We just need patience and hope and maybe some prayers that this pandemic will pass.”
Hanna said he felt “like a weight had been lifted” when he read the ceremonies had been postponed.
“Graduation is a buildup of the blood, sweat and tears that I’ve put into my classes,” Hanna said. “Everything has been leading up to one particular moment for me to show off what I’ve done to my family.”
JMU accompanies thousands of higher learning institutions that have altered their commencement ceremony plans due to the virus. Virginia Tech announced Friday that a virtual ceremony will replace planned commencement activities, and seniors will have the opportunity to storm the field at next semester’s first home football game. The University of Virginia has canceled its graduation ceremonies, with the potential to reschedule them for a later date.
Alger said in a video posted on JMU’s Instagram page that he’s inspired by JMU students’ “ability to overcome obstacles” and encouraged students to stand together during this time of crisis.
“This is an unprecedented challenge for all of us, but it’s also an opportunity for us to call upon our best selves and to write an incredible new chapter in the history of JMU together,” Alger said in the video. “We’ll never forget this experience for the rest of our lives, so let’s rise to the occasion together.”
Contact Brice Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.