As the first person in her family to graduate from college, senior accounting major Ashley Kinberger hopes to break out of the virtual world and step onto the graduation stage to celebrate her accomplishments inside the Yuengling Center. While many of her peers have expressed similar sentiments, not all graduating students think the same.
On the Facebook class of 2021 group, seniors engaged in a debate in the comments of a post Jan. 24 about whether the spring graduation ceremony should take place in person or online in light of the rising number of coronavirus cases across the state. Hundreds of students were split nearly in half, with some hoping for an in-person ceremony, some wanting an online ceremony and a few advocating for a hybrid mix.
The discussions were sparked after all three 2020 USF graduation ceremonies were held online, including the Dec. 12 commencement, which featured 5,000 graduates and was available for families to watch from home.
Due to uncertainties surrounding the virus’ progression, university spokesperson Adam Freeman said no concrete plans have been made for the spring ceremony yet.
“USF will closely monitor COVID-19 conditions and remain in close communication with the State University System leadership as plans are developed,” he said. “Updates will be shared with the USF community as soon as more information is available.”
However, many students like Kinberger are not satisfied with the possibility of an online ceremony. She started a petition Jan. 21 to advocate for an in-person spring graduation.
“I feel as if an online graduation is not the same, you don’t get the same experience, you aren’t surrounded with other graduates who went through all their hard work, as well as your classmates who stayed up with you late nights to study for exams or perfect projects,” Kinberger said.
The petition garnered 326 signatures as of Jan. 25. After speaking with Travis Miller, the associate director of commencement, Kinberger learned that her request would need to be taken to the Board of Governors, which she said she will do after petitioning USF and Florida’s other public universities.
She said her passion to see the petition succeed lies in her desire to properly celebrate the accomplishment of finishing college.
“It’s such an amazing feeling, and I feel as if walking across that stage and just the event of commencement is such a heartfelt thing where we get to celebrate our amazing accomplishments,” she said.
To show the administration that some students wanted an exclusively virtual graduation, a second petition was made by dissidents of the original petition.
Senior political science major Rayna Rogers started her petition Jan. 23 in response to Kinberger’s. Though she has been called “petty” by other students on Facebook, her primary motive for starting the position was making sure that opposing voices were heard by the university as well.
The petition that Rogers created had 70 signatures as of Jan. 25.
“As a graduating senior whose family is very upset at the idea of not being able to see me walk, I understand the disappointment,” Rogers said. “However, I think it’s more important that we, as graduates who are about to fully enter the community, show that we care more about others than ourselves.”
Rogers said she was primarily concerned for people who would be unwilling participants at the graduation like administration, custodial staff and waiters at restaurants where graduates could go to celebrate after the ceremony. Potentially infecting others was a common concern of people who were against the original petition for an in-person ceremony.
“Many people in favor of an in-person graduation have emphasized that people should be given a choice of whether or not to attend,” Rogers said. “What they don’t realize is that while they might get to go to graduation, there are other people who will be affected who will not have the same choice.
“They could potentially infect other people who had no idea a graduation was even occurring.”
While infecting unwilling participants was a concern for some students, others felt that cautionary procedures and mitigation efforts would be sufficient in keeping students safe during an in-person ceremony.
Bayleigh Howe, a social work student, was enthusiastic about having an in-person event if safety measures were to be put in place.
“I think students should be able to bring two or three guests maximum and make the graduation sizes smaller so there are not many of us there at once,” Howe said. “Maybe cut some long speeches and replace them with shorter ones to decrease the amount of time we are there, and have everyone wear a mask.”
Some students, like biology major Marco Terron-Barreto, argued that an in-person graduation should be held because other events like football games and face-to-face classes have already been resumed by the university with mitigation efforts to lessen the likelihood of contracting COVID-19.
“Using those same precautions [as sporting events], it is possible to host a safe graduation,” he said. “Our tuition dollars are partly used for ceremonies and graduation, that’s money we want to see being used correctly for our graduation.”
He also said that having an in-person ceremony should require physical distancing and face coverings to be safe. An outdoor in-person ceremony is preferable, according to Terron-Barreto.
Elizabeth Roach, a senior communication major, proposed a hybrid ceremony in an attempt to quell the passionate debate with a compromise. In her proposed format, students would be able to choose which ceremony option they want to attend while family members watch from home.
“A main argument that has been used is that having an in-person ceremony would promote travel from families and that is how COVID-19 would spread,” Roach said. “An idea that occurred to me that the United States Air Force Academy did was that they held their physical ceremony, but it was streamed online for parents to watch as no guests were allowed.”
She said that conducting a hybrid ceremony like this would honor all participants and allow both groups of students to stay safe in the way that they prefer.
Though no decisions have been made, Freeman said that USF will remain vigilant and listen to student input. Regardless of the format of the spring ceremony, USF will still hold in-person ceremonies in the future, according to Freeman.
“Although USF has held virtual commencements for spring 2020, summer 2020 and fall 2020 due to COVID-19, graduates from those classes will be invited back to participate in a future in-person ceremony,” he said.