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Graduates, Families Reflect As Virtual Commencement Festivities Mark The Weekend

UNC-Chapel Hill graduating senior Amy Martin wears a homemade Carolina facemask during her graduation photoshoot in Coker Arboretum last week.
Jared Weber

Void of all context, the scene at UNC-Chapel Hill's Old Well this week was indistinguishable from years past. The monument glowed with sunshine, providing a classic Carolina backdrop for graduation photoshoots. One by one, students posed for snapshots - photo evidence that they graduated during this most unusual semester.

Among them was Amy Martin, who's the first in her family to graduate from college. She's been attending Zoom classes from her parents' kitchen table in Charlotte for the past six weeks.

Martin said that she made sure to reschedule her photoshoot and make the two-hour trip to Chapel Hill. At the very least, she wanted to have the photos as a memento.

"This is kind of like my final goodbye to the campus," Martin said. "And I have my mom and sister with me so I can just be like 'Oh! This is where I study, or this is where I eat, or they have great bagels here, this library is always crowded, this library smells weird.'"

Online celebrations must do, for now

This weekend was once going to be packed with commencement ceremonies at area colleges and universities. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, celebrations were postponed, canceled, or moved online.

UNC-Chapel Hill and Duke University will hold virtual celebrations Sunday to commemorate the occasion. Carolina's festivities will feature a video watch party. Duke's version will be an interactive online site, with pre-recorded messages from administrators, faculty and alumni. Both will include virtual performances.

Another graduating senior, Arjun Keshava, poses for photos in front of UNC-Chapel Hill's Old Well last week. Keshava, who's pictured with his mom and brother, will be attending the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health for his master's degree.
Credit Jared Weber / For WUNC
Another graduating senior, Arjun Keshava, poses for photos in front of UNC-Chapel Hill's Old Well last week. Keshava, who's pictured with his mom and brother, will be attending the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health for his master's degree.

In separate interviews with WUNC, UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Duke President Vincent Price made it clear that the virtual celebrations will not replace in-person ceremonies.

Price said Duke wanted to create a "time capsule" for graduates to visit in the months and years ahead.

"The goal is to offer a university-wide celebration that gives our graduates and their families an opportunity to interact with the people and places that make Duke special, that is to make up for some of the lost time this spring," Price said.

Duke's president said he's committed to having an in-person, on-campus ceremony sometime next academic year.

"It's still uncertain what form of programming we'll have available in the fall, what kind of limitations there will be on crowd size gatherings, so that continues to be uncertain at this point," Price said.

Commencement is a personal issue for Guskiewicz, whose son will graduate from UNC-Chapel Hill Sunday.

"Taking off my chancellor hat and putting on my dad hat, if you will, I'm sad. I'm sad for all of our graduating students, Guskiewicz said. "On a personal level, it does affect my family and Nathan, and so I'm hopeful that we can find the right time and way to honor the accomplishments, not just of my own son, but of all these graduates."

Guskiewicz said he's considering Labor Day weekend, two weekends in October and a weekend in November for the rescheduled ceremony. He added that he's frequently  communicated with university infectious disease experts, and he won't be comfortable announcing a date until the COVID-19 curve is dropping down.

He said a few other metrics are being monitored as well.

"Safety is our top priority," Guskiewicz said. "The nice thing is that Kenan Stadium is a large venue. For a typical May commencement ceremony there, we do not use the entire stadium, so it might involve us spreading out, if you will, and holding that ceremony … feeling a little different than it might typically."

North Carolina State University and North Carolina Central University are both unveiling content online throughout this week to mark the occasion.

NC State's individual colleges are also planning virtual celebrations, said Mick Kulikowski, director of strategic communications and media relations, in an email.

"We look forward to celebrating the achievements of our graduates in person when it is safe to do so," Kulikowski said.

Mixed opinions towards a future ceremony

Some graduates are excited at the prospects of a future celebration.

UNC senior Bryan Truong stopped by the Old Well to take pictures for two of his friends.

"Some part of me is actually pretty excited because I feel like it'll be like having a reunion, so there's a silver lining in it," Truong said.

But Amy Martin doesn't know when she'll be back on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus, and she isn't sure whether she'll be able to attend a rescheduled ceremony this fall.

"I'll be doing a master's program in California in August, so I don't know what it's going to look like from here on out," Martin said.

Her mother, Carol Martin, can't help but feel like this moment will be lost. As she walked through campus with her daughter, she was unable to hold back tears.

"This was our family time. My son was supposed to be coming back from California as well. It's just …," Martin said, taking a deep breath. "It's hard."

Ultimately, they were glad to have one last visit to Chapel Hill. And they'll have some photos to remember it by, too.

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