Op-ed: Tufts can do better than virtual commencement

Disclaimer: Hannah Kahn is a former executive opinion editor and executive audio editor at the Daily.

We knew that our in-person graduation was not going to happen on May 17 as planned. I, along with the fellow members of the Class of 2020, have known that pretty much since the university informed us that classes would be held online for the remainder of the semester. Without realizing, we attended our last seminars, played our last games, went to our last rehearsals and club meetings, ate our last Kosher Deli chicken salad sandwiches and drank our last Medford Fogs.  We’ve already had to process that college as we knew it was over.

But of course, it makes sense. Graduation should not take place in May. We cannot plan for families and friends to fly in from around the world in less than two months, to congregate hundreds of people on our campus. It wouldn’t be safe, and it’s not the priority right now. It’s not clear how the coronavirus pandemic will play out, but it is almost certainly going to get worse here in America. The last thing Tufts should do is put students and their loved ones in danger.

But a virtual commencement, with no plans of postponing the real one? Tufts can do better.

Commencement, yes, has a logistical purpose. It’s about getting you the diploma, the precious piece of paper that means your time here is done, you satisfied the requirements, you Did The Thing. This procedural aspect of commencement can be satisfied online. Fine.

But graduation is also a milestone, a moment in time that allows us to demarcate college from whatever might come next. It carries emotional importance for the individual and the family. No matter how heartily we sing our alma mater on Zoom, or how gorgeous our virtual diplomas are, this sentimental significance cannot be conveyed through a screen. It can only occur when we come together.

In their email to the Tufts community on Thursday, March 26, administrators made no mention of plans for an in-person celebration. The described attempt to “design a unique and participatory virtual experience that will capture the spirit, positivity and fun of a traditional commencement ceremony” is completely unrealistic. I think we can all agree that a giant FaceTime cannot approximate an in-person graduation. This totally undermines the emotional role this ceremony serves for students and families.

Our generation is frequently criticized — and rightfully so — for spending too much time on screens. We are often met with pleas to be present and to connect with each other offline. Now, we are saying you were right — and if we are asking you for the chance to come together in-person, you should listen.

Tufts should follow the lead of the several other colleges that have promised their students an in-person celebration, with the date to be determined. Harvard University president Lawrence Bacow emailed students on Friday, March 20, that they will hold a virtual ceremony “to award degrees so that everyone will graduate as expected.” However, Bacow admitted that “no virtual gathering can possibly match the splendor of our usual festivities,” then committed to “host an in-person celebration sometime later, once we know it is safe to bring people together again.” He continued, “By then, we will be eager not just to celebrate our graduating students, but also to recognize and acknowledge the sacrifices that so many have made to ensure the well-being of our community.” Tufts, which tries to emulate Harvard on many other fronts, should start with this message.

If nothing else, Tufts should consider that cancelling our graduation is not in its best interest as an institution. The Tufts Class of 2020 is ablaze on social media, sharing its frustration along with a petition that has amassed over 4,000 signatures in less than two days. We are reaching out to alumni, asking them to remember their graduation and the senior spring leading up to it. There is a whole class of students leaving Tufts on a sour note, whose opinions matter to former students and potential donors, and who could be donors ourselves.

Additionally, prospective students choosing between Tufts and other similarly selective universities may see this commencement decision as a bad look for our university. Schools like Brown University, Cornell University, University of Michigan, Duke University and others have all chosen to postpone. Others like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania have gone with a virtual ceremony and a tentative on-campus celebration down the road. Most NESCAC schools are still making their decision on commencement, but of the ones that have, Tufts is alone in cancelling graduation without mention of a future in-person event. This may garner bad press for the university. If Tufts wants to protect its own image, it should take cues from their peer institutions and postpone.

Let me be clear: We know there are much bigger issues right now than whether or not to postpone graduation. But as students experiencing a transitional period that was scary enough without a global pandemic, we’re looking for normalcy where we can get it and something communal to look forward to down the road.

Every time I’ve called my grandparents over the past year, they sign off with some version of, “And we can’t wait for your graduation!” For my grandpa, who is 92, having family gatherings like this on the calendar keeps him going. That’s to say, this decision affects more than just Tufts students; it’s a big deal for families, too. It’s heartbreaking for students and families who have never lost sight of how big a deal it is to graduate from a school like Tufts, particularly first generation students and other students who’ve overcome a lot to get here.  They deserve to wear a cap and gown, to walk across the stage, to come together with their friends and family for a moment that they’ll look back on for the rest of their lives.

We understand that an in-person ceremony may not happen soon, and that’s okay. We are willing to wait. The reason we are so angry is because Tufts, and the people we’ve met here, mean the world to us. We should at least get to say a proper goodbye.