graduation

Vass said the graduate guest policy was made to follow guidelines put in place by the Governor’s office.

Due to COVID-19, graduation ceremonies at JMU will be different from ceremonies held pre-pandemic. JMU has decided to hold the graduation ceremony in person, but each graduate will only be allowed zero, two or four guests due to COVID-19 restrictions according to an email sent to graduating students March 17. 

Mary-Hope Vass, JMU spokesperson and director of communications, said the decision regarding the zero, two or four policy was made by following guidelines given by the Governor’s office for large gatherings. 

Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) March 17 announcement addressed how schools can guarantee safe outdoor ceremonies. This announcement states that graduation ceremonies “will be capped at 5,000 people or 30 percent of the venue capacity, whichever is less.” The announcement also states that “attendees must wear masks and follow other guidelines and safety protocols to ensure proper distancing.”

According to the JMU Sports website, Bridgeforth stadium can hold 24,877 people. Thirty percent of this is over 7,000 people, which makes the capacity for each graduation ceremony 5,000. 

Vass said in an email there’d be a virtual ceremony for friends and extended family who can’t attend in person due to this policy.

“The university is understanding of the desire for each graduate to bring numerous guests to celebrate their accomplishments at graduation,” Vass said in the email. “The space within the stadium can accommodate (with proper physical distancing) each graduate and their four guests, which is where this number is derived from, in addition to faculty and staff and those managing the actual event.”

Many JMU students who had more than four guests to invite turned to Facebook and other JMU group chats to ask if anyone had an extra ticket they could have or purchase for their additional guests. 

Upcoming graduates Dyanna Rodriguez, health and behavioral sciences major, and Madina Safdar, public policy and administration major, said they have large immediate families, so they can’t have their whole families attend the event in person. Both posted on the Official James Madison University (JMU) Class of 2021 Facebook page hoping to obtain tickets for their extra family members.

As first-generation college students who come from immigrant families of six, Rodriguez and Safdar said the graduation tickets policy is especially upsetting. Safdar said she had hoped her younger brothers could attend in person. 

“I’m a first-generation student, so I’m the first in my family graduating high school and college,” Safdar said. “So, I guess I wanted my brothers to be there to see me walk just so they know that … they can walk and graduate too.”

Rodriguez also said she hoped her whole family could be at her graduation in person. Rodriguez’s older brother has volunteered to be the one in the family who won’t attend, which she said was upsetting.

“My immediate family is so important to me,” Rodriguez said. “My brother has been an inspiration to me growing up … [Graduating is] very important for us as immigrants, so I really wanted everyone to see it.”

Safdar and senior engineering major Catherine Beck offered the suggestion of JMU getting student input or using some type of survey to see how many people were in 2021 graduates’ households. 

“For me, it was perfect because I actually only needed three, but ’cause you had to do the reservations in either zero, two or four, so, I actually ended up having to fill in my fourth spot with someone,” Beck said. “I think it definitely would have been a good idea to send out a survey for how many tickets people would need.” 

Beck said the survey would’ve allowed students with larger immediate families, like Safdar’s, to use excess tickets some students with larger families need. 

April 2, an email was sent to students from JMU which addressed the transferring and sale of tickets, stating “Tickets may not be sold or transferred to other graduate families due to COVID-19 guidelines.”

After students received this email, the social media posts slowed, and some that were still up collected comments saying that they aren’t allowed to transfer or purchase tickets from others.

Several students said that they’re grateful they’ll be able to have an in-person graduation ceremony despite the restrictions due to COVID-19, including senior nursing major Amy Zibrowski and senior biology major Claire O’Hanlon. 

Guests of graduates who are unable to attend in person due to the four person limit must now take the option to watch graduation virtually — an option that Zibrowski’s additional guests are taking advantage of.

“I have a couple extra people I wish I could have invited, but I think I am just, like, gonna have them come to Harrisonburg and sit in my house and watch it virtually while the other four people go,” Zibrowski said.

Safdar said she understood the need for restrictions, though she wishes she could’ve invited more people. 

“I would say it is fair just because of COVID-19 restrictions,” she said. “I am sure they were looking at how many people they could fit in each area to, like, social distance, but I wish they could have looked at it in different ways.”

Contact Sarah Eccleston at ecclessk@dukes.jmu.edu. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.