JMU’s class of 2020 balances disappointment with hope after graduation was postponed — twice

By Tristan Lorei, contributor

Today was supposed to be the start of the pandemic-delayed graduation ceremony for JMU’s class of 2020. But after months of anxiously and eagerly waiting, JMU 2020 seniors learned through a July 6 email that the rescheduled Aug.7-8 ceremony would be delayed. Again. 

“We remain determined to find an appropriate time for in-person ceremonies to celebrate the Class of 2020,” the announcement from JMU President Jonathan Alger said. “Given the current uncertainties, we are not ready to announce a new date at this time, but we do expect to hold special ceremonies for the Class of 2020 by the end of this coming academic year.”

That would mean by May 2021. Many of this spring’s graduates, though, aren’t exactly holding their breath for that because the finish to their collegiate careers was marked by nothing but uncertainty. 

In March, when the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading faster across the United States, JMU classes — like those at most  schools — shifted online. Initially the plan was for online learning to last a few weeks. Some students were hopeful it would only be temporary. It wasn’t. And classes remained online for the rest of the semester. 

“It was my senior year, so I was disappointed,” said Matt DelDonna, who graduated with a degree in the School of Media Arts and Design. “I was upset that I wasn’t gonna be able to go back for my last semester there. I was a fifth-year too, so for that to happen in my extra year it was really upsetting.”

Because the shift to online classes came immediately after Spring Break, many students couldn’t say goodbye to their friends in person or wind down their time at college the way members of previous graduating classes had. 

“I just thought of all the opportunities that senior year provided that I was going to miss,” said graduate Ester Jon.

On top of missed experiences, online classes presented challenges for some as well. Grant Johnson, an athletic training major, had mostly practical classes his final semester, so online classes were jarring at first.

“A lot of my classwork was based on clinical work so it was hard for me to view online school as good as it would be” otherwise, Johnson said.

The disappointment for students like Johnson continued, however, when students learned their ceremony would have to be delayed as well. Originally, the plan was to maintain a May ceremony. Social distancing, limits on public and social gatherings and Virginia’s stay-at-home order that lasted through June 10 all made the May ceremony impossible. So JMU announced a rescheduling for Aug. 7-8.

But again, because of pandemic-related restrictions to keep people from transmitting COVID-19, that rescheduled ceremony wasn’t to be. 

Alger’s July 6 announcement cited Gov. Ralph Northam’s Executive Order #67, which barred public gatherings with more than 250 people.

While many of the graduates understood the reasoning behind the delay, the second rescheduling — this time indefinitely — still disappointed many of them. 

“It was kind of a shock,” said Taylor Bronaugh, a psychology major. “It was disappointing because you worked so hard to have this ceremony … but there’s nothing anybody at JMU can do about it, so I don’t want to be upset.”

As JMU officials hold out hope for still holding an in-person commencement for the class of 2020 at some point, so do the graduates. 

“Right now, I would” come back, DelDonna said, “just because I’m still fairly fresh off of graduation, and I feel like I’d still, at that point, want to go.”

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