CHESTERTOWN — May 15 was supposed to be one of the most exciting days of the last four years for Washington College’s senior class — then COVID-19 hit.
With COVID-19 cases on the rise, Washington College followed the lead of many other colleges and universities and moved classes online following an extended spring break, leaving the fate of the 237th commencement ceremony up in the air.
“I know that there is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty as all of us grapple with the new reality of containing the spread of COVID-19,” President Kurt Landgraf said in an email sent on March 16. “While it may seem like the target it always moving, it is too soon to decide about commencement.”
On March 20, after a student was hospitalized because they were suspected of having COVID-19, the college decided to postpone commencement with a date to be determined.
“We are committed to bringing all of our graduating seniors together for a proper send-off in person,” the WC Response Team said on behalf of the Provost and Dean Patrice DiQuinzio, in an email.
After much deliberation among administration, an in-person commencement was scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 17.
“We chose this date because it gives us time to get all of the details of commencement in place and it gives you and your families time to arrange to be here,” DiQuinzio said in an email on March 28. “Most importantly, based on what we know now, a date in the fall is much less likely to be overturned by COVID19 than a date in the next few months.”
While many seniors were saddened by the news, it gave some hope that they would only have to wait out the pandemic for a little while until they could graduate, see their friends again, and say proper goodbyes.
However, as time went on, many started to realize that an in-person ceremony may not be an option and braced themselves for the worst.
“It just became less realistic for me to attend my own graduation,” said Heber Guerra-Recinos, an English and art double major and creative writing minor. “I’m an out-of-state student — I live in New York — so traveling during a pandemic down to Maryland for the graduation — an in-person ceremony, which would be a breeding ground for the virus and be a total nightmare — it just became unrealistic.
“Reflecting on it now, [the postponed ceremony] felt like the lesser of two evils — either some of us get to have [graduation] or no one does,” he said.
Despite that lessened likelihood, the decision to hold an in-person commencement was overturned on July 10, the college opting instead for a virtual ceremony.
“With mixed emotions, I write to share with you that Washington College has made the difficult decision to alter the College’s plans to hold an in-person commencement this fall,” Landgraf announced in an email. “After months of discussions and deliberations over how to ensure the health and safety of all of our students, staff, and faculty and what the fall semester at WC will look like, it became obvious that we could not in good conscience hold an in-person commencement in October.”
News of the virtual commencement was not taken well by the senior class, whose spring semester was cut short and has left them in a sort of limbo.
“When it was postponed, I was very, very sad,” said Mary Sprague, this year's winner of the college's famed Sophie Kerr Award. “I think the first postponement was the worst because at that point I was still hopeful that we could do it in person. The second wave wasn’t as bad—I think they’re making the right call.
“I feel like I should be going back to school in the fall — I feel like we missed so many rituals of separation at the end of the year that it just feels really liquid,” Sprague said.
The college will be sending regalia and decorations to students’ homes, asking that they take pictures and send the best on back to be included in the virtual commencement ceremony.
At the virtual commencement, each student will have a slide with their photo and personal information and their name will be read and honors will be read.
“It’s kind of funny because I wasn’t really looking forward to walking anyway,” said Abby Wargo, an English major and journalism, editing and publishing and creative writing double minor. “The ceremony itself isn’t necessarily what I was looking forward to. But I was looking forward to all of the end-of-semester ceremonies.”
Wargo, who served two years as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper The Elm, wasn’t too concerned about the changes to the graduation ceremony itself, saying that if it was postponed, she didn’t really want to go.
Other seniors have echoed the sentiment that this ceremony won’t be as satisfying, and several have questioned whether or not they will go, regardless of location or format.
“If we had at least had a virtual ceremony on the actual day of graduation I think that would have made more sense because we were all still in the mindset — this is like prolonging the wound,” she said.
Many students have taken to the Class of 2020 Facebook page to voice their concerns about the date and their exclusion from the decision to wait until October to officially graduate, whether they would get some of their graduation fees back, and to share emailed updates that not everyone had received from the College.
According to an email copy and pasted to the Facebook page on July 21, it was decided that seniors would get half of their graduation fees back, but nothing has been said about the specifics of the logistics of the online ceremony.
Ryan Zwier, a computer science and math double major with a minor in Asian studies, was chosen to give student commencement address.
“I really think this will be a special ceremony — especially since they’re not pulling the trigger too quick, they can sit back and take their take their time and make something special for us,” Zwier said.
He has not yet heard how he will be delivering his speech given the online format but hopes to be able to record himself on the green to give some sort of resemblance to a normal graduation.
While many students are still collecting their thoughts about the commencement ceremony being online, some are looking forward to hopefully being able to see one another in person again soon.
“If they want to do something for the class of 2020, they should do it correctly, safely and they should go all out,” Sprague said about a speculative in-person celebration in May 2021.
For now, though, the Class of 2020 will be heading off to the working world — applying for jobs, internships and waiting for some sort of return to normalcy after COVID-19.