By Jessica Kronzer, contributor
A year and four months after earning their degrees, JMU’s class of 2020 will walk the stage Sept. 3. The graduates will become the first class to move their tassels at the Atlantic Union Bank Center, which opened in Nov. 2020. But some alumni feel it’s too little, too late.
Mary-Hope Vass, JMU’s university spokesperson, said the institution is excited to welcome the class back for their commencement ceremonies, which were postponed due to the pandemic.
“The class of 2020 certainly had significant challenges before and even upon graduation,” Vass said. “While it’s another challenge that it’s a little bit late, it was still something that was not forgotten by senior leaders and something that’s still been very much a priority for them to do.”
Vass said details regarding health guidelines for the ceremony, the number of guests allowed, and other events planned for the weekend-long celebration are yet to come. The university is also planning a football game along with other activities.
The decision to host a ceremony did not come without pressure from alumni and their families. Paul Hanna, a 2020 graduate who majored in history, created an online petition to support an in-person commencement that garnered over 500 signatures. Hanna said the number of signatures “skyrocketed” after the site was posted on the “JMU parents” and the “JMU Class of 2020” Facebook groups.
An email sent to 2020 alumni offered a poll with different options to celebrate their graduation. Some of these included a free night’s stay in a hotel, a cap decorating contest and a scavenger hunt. This survey had some graduates worried that the university was considering not holding a ceremony, which motivated Hanna to post his petition.
“I wanted to get all of our opinions out there to show the JMU administration that we really want a classic commencement ceremony,” Hanna said.
Though many pestered the university for a ceremony, the event being so delayed presents challenges for graduates and their families. Some students are debating if it’s worth returning to Harrisonburg in the fall. In an Instagram poll of 46 alumni, only 24% of respondents said they plan to attend the commencement ceremony.
Megan Giannini, a psychology graduate, is unable to attend because she will already be in graduate school at Longwood University in Farmville in the fall. Giannini would have preferred for a ceremony for 2020 graduates to have taken place before the class of 2021’s graduation – but even then, she may not have gone.
“Personally, I wouldn’t have gone just because it has been so long that it doesn’t have the same effect as if it was closer to when we actually graduated,” Giannini said. “This far out, it feels like they’re just trying to appease the people who were complaining and not really give us a day to celebrate it.”
Giannini said hosting commencement on a weekday leading up to Labor Day weekend adds scheduling hurdles for many alumni.
Travis Cannella, a 2020 alumnus, majored in computer information systems. He’s still deciding whether to attend the ceremony, and said his choice would be determined by whether his friends attend and what sorts of other events the university hosts.
“A lot of schools did the combined graduation this spring, which I thought would have been a way better idea,” Cannella said. “It’s just kind of not really a big deal anymore.”
For Cannella, the potential need to take off work, find a dog-sitter, and schedule hotel accommodations all present challenges to attending. Cannella’s parents have already been disappointed twice, now that two Mays have passed without a ceremony.
“Now we have to do it all again for the third time, but it’s just kind of too much at this point,” Cannella said. “I’m basically at the point where if a lot of my friends go, I’ll go, but a lot of them are saying the same thing.”
For alumni who can attend, the ceremony provides a chance for closure and to celebrate their accomplishments. Anna Camden, who studied health service administration, is looking forward to spending the weekend reuniting with her friends, but feeling a bit lukewarm about the official ceremony.
“If it was just up to me, I probably wouldn’t care so much about it,” Camden said. “But my mom and my dad, they really want to see me walk.”
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