Both Distanced and Together: Commencement Celebrations for the Class of 2020 Go Virtual

Despite members of the William & Mary community finding themselves scattered across the globe in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, graduating students and their families came together this past Saturday for the University’s virtual conferral of degrees ceremony.

When students left campus on Friday, March 6th for spring break, they had no way of knowing that they wouldn’t be returning. Although rumors of the rapidly-spreading coronavirus had been growing, the danger felt distant and incapable of posing any real threat to what was many seniors’ highly-anticipated spring semester. While some students had decided not to embark on international adventures over spring break, fearing the worst of the virus, news of toilet paper and hand sanitizer shortages seemed extreme. But that was just the beginning.

Following Governor Northam’s announcement of a “stay-at-home” order effective through June 10th, William & Mary made the decision to cancel in-person classes for the remainder of the Spring 2020 semester. It was the right move, of course, but that didn’t make it any less disheartening, particularly for graduating students. However, unlike other universities across the country, William & Mary pulled through for its Class of 2020 undergraduate, graduate, and professional students as best it could, given the unprecedented, uncertain circumstances: the University decided to host its first-ever virtual degree conferral ceremony on May 16th and invite students to return for traditional celebrations in October.

What would this new format look like? Graduates would be unable to take traditional cap and gown photos with friends in front of the Wren building. There would be no candlelight ceremony, no walk across the Crim Dell, and no ringing of the historic Wren bell to signify the end of classes. But William & Mary students always find a way. Graduates filmed themselves ringing cowbells, bike bells, and dinner bells in their respective quarantine locations. Parents stepped in to snap individual photos until professional shots could be captured in the fall. The Alma Mater prevailed through a virtual conglomeration of voices. And students re-enacted their tassel-toss within the confines of their living rooms. Amidst the chaos of a global health crisis, the virtual commencement activities shone through as a positively memorable experience for graduates and their families.

For graduates of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, there was no shortage of wisdom and congratulations from faculty members. Professor Emeritus William Stauffer encouraged graduates to recognize that “these are extraordinary times, but there is an end-point to COVID-19, and life will continue in all its splendor. Use this time wisely,” he urged. “Stay healthy. Invest in your wellbeing. And maybe most importantly, serve others.” Professor Scott Swan further advised students to “continue to do hard things” and not to “rest on this accomplishment [of graduating]. “Instead, continue to pursue challenges,” he said. “Hard things are easy to rationalize away: they’re risky, they invite failure, and as we’ve seen because we’re living through it now, they’re hard. They offer more chances to succeed dramatically though, more chances to learn, more chances to build a team of like-minded people that will help you pave the way to great outcomes, and they will make your heart louder and more brilliantly above the gale.”

The Business School ceremony also recognized recipients of faculty excellence and student contribution awards. Students in each of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business’s seven programs (Undergraduate, Master of Accounting, Master of Science in Business Analytics, Online Master of Science in Business Analytics, Full-Time MBA, Flex MBA, and Online MBA) voted to select one faculty member for special recognition as an excellent teacher and role model. As Dean Larry Pulley noted during the ceremony, “these are cherished recognitions by our faculty.” The Faculty Excellence Award recipients were: Professor Julie Agnew (Undergraduate), Professor Denise Jones (Master of Accounting), Professor Rachel Chung (Master of Science in Business Analytics), Professor Joseph Wilck (Online Master of Science in Business Analytics), Professor Christine Petrovits (Full-Time MBA), Professor Robert Williams (Flex MBA), and Professor Terrence Shannon (Online MBA). Professor Matthew Dean was also named the MBA Class of 1997 Faculty Award recipient for his innovative uses of classroom technology. The student contribution award winners were selected by their classmates for their contributions in both the classroom and the W&M communities they’ve helped to flourish. This year’s student contribution award recipients were: Adam O’Connell (Undergraduate), Sophie Caplan (Master of Accounting), Kyle Soler (Master of Science in Business Analytics), Shannon Mada (Online Master of Science in Business Analytics), Brittney Rakestraw (Full-Time MBA), Katelind Hays (Flex MBA), and Adam Sellers (Online MBA).

While our fingers remain crossed for an in-person celebration in October, this year’s virtual commencement events honoring the Class of 2020 offered temporary respite from the harsh realities of the coronavirus pandemic. These events allowed graduates to celebrate their hard-earned accomplishments, reunite with classmates and professors, and find some closure on their student experience at William & Mary and the Raymond A. Mason School of Business. And although graduates may find themselves feeling lost as they leave Williamsburg during such turbulent times, they can rest assured in the knowledge that they will always have a home (virtually, physically, and at heart) within the Tribe.